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Review 1, 9-23: Corps Values
All-Access 'Sylphide' from Tulsa Ballet
By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2005 Alicia Chesser
Photography copyrightĘ Christopher
TULSA -- "La Sylphide"
is one of those landmark ballets, like Balanchine's "Apollo," that
opens a window in the art of dance through which a new breeze rushes
-- slightly chilly, slightly mysterious, but bracing and awakening.
Created in 1832 for Marie Taglioni by her father Filippo (and re-choreographed
by August Bournonville in 1836), it is often considered the first
Romantic ballet, the precursor to "Giselle" and "Swan Lake," the
beginning of the art form's love affair with, among other things,
ethereal, white-gowned, otherwordly maidens. It is, of course, the
ballet in which dancing on pointe was popularized (as the Dance
Insider's efforts to have Taglioni properly honored at her grave
in France have reminded us). Unlike the epic dramatic works that
followed it, however, this is a ballet that today can look merely
"pretty," full of charming Scottish reels and airy sylph wings.
But "pretty" is the very least of it. "La Sylphide," like so much
else in the Romantic age, is also full of witchcraft and deception
and the burden of choice, and even in its loveliness it throws you
out of balance. Or, at least, it should.
In performances last
weekend at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Tulsa Ballet took its
first turn in many years with the story of the Sylph and the Scotsman.
Under the direction of Marcello Angelini since 1995, the company
is still working to find its identity after decades in the Ballets
Russes tradition under its founders Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne
Larkin. (Their son, Roman L. Jasinski, preceded Angelini.) It's
also working to find its niche in a city that's no longer booming
with oil -- a city, in other words, in which patrons of the ballet
no longer come ready-made. Angelini has steered the company in a
new direction, filling the repertoire with works by contemporary
ballet choreographers such as Nacho Duato and Stanton Welch while
retaining some classics -- "The Nutcracker," "Sleeping Beauty" --
to anchor the seasons. Balanchine and Robbins show up here and there,
but the main thrust of Angelini's programming is contemporary. (To
his credit, he is not afraid to commission work.) He is clearly
in pursuit of an audience -- a young audience -- to which he wants
to introduce, as he puts it, "the past, present, and future of ballet."
From my observations over the past two years, he is succeeding in
his quest; I see more young couples, college students, and teens
in attendance than I ever remember in the Jasinski days. Angelini
works hard -- in radio interviews before performances, for example
-- to show the relevance of the ballets he programs to the lives
of everyone who might ("might" being the key word!) come to watch.
But for Angelini, "relevance"
doesn't mean putting sylphs in bike shorts or anything like that.
Seen last Friday, this "La Sylphide" -- the Bournonville version,
staged by Angelini, to music by Herman Lovenskjold -- was, first
and foremost, traditional. Sets and costumes on loan from Houston
Ballet were nicely done: a rustic hall and bold tartans and low-heeled
shoes in Act I, a starlit canopy of branches and gauzy white tutus
in Act II. ("La Sylphide" was also the first tutu ballet.) Characters
too were, well, in character. James (Ma Cong) was full of ardor.
Effie, his fiancee (a gentle Cecile Tuzii), was sweet and wholesome.
Gurn (Wilson Lema), James's cousin who also loves Effie, was steady
and perhaps a little cloddish. And Madge the Witch, in a riveting
performance by Angelini, was a feisty, sinewy hag who rather liked
her drink and was very self-satisfied in her nasty mischief. (To
get vengeance on James, who threatened to turn her out of his house
on his wedding day, she soaks a scarf in poison and gives it to
him so he can capture the Sylph, whom it kills instead, much to
his shocked chagrin.)
Then there was La Sylphide
herself -- that taunting, haunting, inaccessible creature who lures
James away from his quiet life with Effie -- performed Friday by
Elena Serna, making her company debut. Serna, who comes to Tulsa
from Spain's Ballet de Zaragoza, is like a young Alessandra Ferri,
fine-boned and dark-haired, with gorgeously arched feet and milk-white
skin. Her solos in Act I were airy and frolicsome, full of clear,
sure-footed jumps. She positively floated through Act II, which
made her death scene -- in which she staggers and contracts for
a moment, her wings drop from her shoulders, and her eyes lose their
sight -- all the more surprising.
Unlike her technique,
however, Serna's Sylph never grabbed my attention. There are, of
course, many ways to interpret any character in dance. I can imagine
La Sylphide as a temptress, or an ice queen, or a dozen other things.
I loved Serna's delicacy and vivacity in the role. But her Sylph
was, simply, very familiar. In a recent interview with radio station
KWGS, Angelini spoke of La Sylphide as the ideal of love that is
held out before each one of us. Perhaps she is that; thinking of
her that way certainly makes her relevant to our modern lives. Unfortunately,
thinking of her mainly as an ideal (which seems to be how Serna
thought of her, too) makes her rather uninteresting -- and this
is something La Sylphide should never be. She's otherworldly through
and through, and hers seems to be a world that doesn't much care
about the niceties of honor and commitment. When she leans down
to awaken James with a kiss on his wedding day, she's not just being
charming; she's luring him into her domain. When she flies across
the stage in skimming grand jetes at the end of Act I, she's not
just saying, "Here I go!"; she's holding out the promise of a whole
other way of being, a way perhaps even wilder than that of earthly
passion. Serna's Sylph, brimming with loveliness though she was,
was more "Giselle" than a creature from the dark Scotch wood.
Ma Cong's James, though
not without its one-dimensional moments, was richer. A slim dancer
with a gorgeous, light jump, Cong blasted through his first- and
second-act solos in a way that was simply too showy for Bournonville's
choreography. (Tulsa's audience, like any other, loves its male
stars, which means it loves to see them fly. The style here, however,
calls for more refinement and restraint, preferring clarity over
fireworks.) His James was a passionate young man, full of fire and
exuberance. His melancholy moments -- as when he tries to put his
first vision of La Sylphide out of his head -- seemed forced. But
especially in Act II, trying to draw the Sylph back into his world
where he can keep her forever, Cong achieved the half-lucid, half-crazed
demeanor of a man in pursuit of something he knows he must have
but doesn't fully understand. James is a tragic character, a happy
man who discovers what seems a greater happiness and then loses
everything. Cong's interpretation, while in some ways over the top,
gave us glimpses of those lights and shadows.
Ballet in "La Sylphide." Christopher
Jean-Richard photo copyright 2005 Christopher Jean-Richard
and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.
great deal of what was lacking in character development among the
principals -- what was too easy, too obvious -- was made up for
by the sheer delight of Bournonville's choreography and the tremendous
skill of the Tulsa Ballet corps. From the bouncing glissades of
the wedding guests to the funeral procession for La Sylphide (a
procession echoed generations later in Balanchine's "Serenade"),
each moment of dancing was marked by exceptional articulation, energy,
and uniformity of style. In the way they rehearse their dancers,
Angelini and his ballet mistresses, Susan Frei and Daniela Buson,
show again and again how serious they are about technique -- not
just about steps, but about the sensibility with which they are
performed. In Act I's closing reel (and in an earlier, excellent
pas de huit which Angelini added to give his corps dancers a little
more to do), the speed was incredible, as fast as in Balanchine's
"Agon," with momentum and energy building until you thought the
thing would fall apart. (And of course, with James's desertion of
Effie, it actually does.) In Act II, the 14 sylphs showed a lovely
modesty of movement. Real care had been taken about the positions
of heads and shoulders and hands, so that each new position was
like a quiet new thought. Rene Olivier, in particular, made each
moment matter; time seemed to slow in her second-act variation as
she considered each tilt of her head, while never breaking a phrase.
It is odd to me that
the leading dancers in this production seemed so much less varied,
thoughtful, and integrated in expression than the corps de ballet.
Could this be explained by Angelini's preference for giving everyone,
from the more established to the less established, an opportunity
to perform leading roles? He has expressed a desire to do away with
the "principal dancer" position altogether. (Cong is currently the
only one on the roster.) I don't think this is the reason. I believe
it has more to do with the matter of relevance. Dancers in leading
roles are the main attractions; they are, in large part, what draws
an audience into a ballet when the curtain goes up. But to what
sort of experience do they invite the audience? What does the audience
expect? In this production, I missed an air of fantasy; there were
no ghosts of "Sylphides" past, no perfume from this ballet's long
tradition; at the same time, there was nothing unexpected. It was
put on to entertain, and that it did. The challenge for Tulsa Ballet
in performing classic works is not to let accessibility diminish
seriousness, freshness, and depth.
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