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NYCB's Nod to History, 'La Sylphide'

New York City Ballet in Peter Martins’s staging of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Jennifer Homans, in her seminal book Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, traces the genesis of the Romantic ballet back to August Bournonville's La Sylphide. Premiered by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1836, it is one of the oldest ballets still being performed today. (It is not to be confused with Michel Fokine's later Les Sylphides, sometimes known as Chopiniana, which has been under review a couple times in recent years.) The original version of La Sylphide, with choreography by Filippo Taglioni and music by Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer, premiered in Paris four years before Bournonville's ballet, but the Paris version does not survive. Bournonville had wanted to present the Taglioni-Schneitzhoeffer ballet in Copenhagen but, because the cost was prohibitive, he made his own version on the same libretto instead, with music by Herman Severin Løvenskiold. Sadly, it was not one of the Bournonville ballets brought to Washington by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2011. It was, however, the focus of the second program of the New York City Ballet presented at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night.

The story came by way of Charles Nodier's Gothic story Trilby, ou le lutin d'Argail, heavily influenced by Nodier's visit to Scotland and reading of Walter Scott. In the story a young wife is seduced by a demonic spirit and takes her own life when a monk tries to perform an exorcism. The roles are reversed in the ballet, as a Scotsman named James leaves his bride-to-be, Effie, at the altar to chase after the eponymous woodland spirit, which has appeared to him and beguiled him. A spiteful witch, angered because James turned her away from his fireplace, tricks him into using a charm to capture the sylph, which kills her, and also engineers Effie's marriage to James's rival, Gurn. The work is often seen now as "a quaint relic of a misty romanticism," as Homans put it, and this is in some ways how Martins's staging of the ballet, the first that he ever saw in his native Denmark, comes off in performance. Homans traces how the Paris version of the ballet incarnated the political disenchantment of the generation that lived after the French Revolution, including Chateaubriand's obsession with the story.

Due to a cast change, La Sylphide reunited Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette as James and Effie, after their excellent pairing which was the best part of Justin Peck's new choreography The Most Incredible Thing, seen on Tuesday. Veyette, tall and proud in purple tartan, used his remarkable ability to lift from the stage and showily upstaged the humorous Gurn of Daniel Ulbricht in the reel scene, revealing the character's growing obsession in his movements. Ulbricht added needed comic levity with his fay imitation of Hyltin's sylph, who floated in a mesmerizing way throughout the ballet, especially in the scene where she appears to James in the window, seeming almost suspended on wires. Georgina Pazcoguin was a vengeful, bent-backed crone as Madge, the evil witch. The corps, in a light-as-air ballet blanc in the fluorescent wood scene of Act II, were accompanied beautifully by harp and solo violin. In general the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under conductor Daniel Capps, had a better handle on this score, including the five horns, who were almost faultless.

Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, New York City Ballet suits up for courage and soars in ‘La Sylphide’ (Washington Post, March 4)

---, Peter Martins, dipping into his past while bounding into the future (Washington Post, February 26)

Gia Kourlas, ‘La Sylphide’ Is City Ballet’s Bittersweet Valentine (New York Times, February 14)
The evening opened with Bournonville Divertissements, the result of Balanchine's request that Stanley Williams create some excerpts of Bournonville's works for New York City Ballet. The current version includes excerpts from Napoli, Flower Festival in Genzano, and Abdallah, a lovely companion piece to Martins's staging of La Sylphide. Troy Schumacher had impressive energy and buoyancy as the fisherman Gennaro in the Napoli excerpts, and Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle stood out in the duet from Flower Festival, she for her elegantly curved extensions, he for his physical strength. The cost of this evening devoted to ballet history in La Sylphide was reportedly $1.4 million, which compared to Peck's less successful Most Incredible Thing at $1.3 million, sounds like a steal.

This production repeats today and tomorrow, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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