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Flash Review 1, 9-23: Corps Values
All-Access 'Sylphide' from Tulsa Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2005 Alicia Chesser
Photography copyrightĘ Christopher Jean-Richard

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.
Tulsa Ballet in "La Sylphide." Christopher Jean-Richard photo copyright 2005 Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

A 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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