Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Forget the Sylph: Where’s Effie?

La Sylphide By Marissa Trarback
  • Harrison James and Jurgita Dronina in La Sylphide / Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

Something flitters across the stage at the Four Seasons Centre during The National Ballet of Canada’s production of La Sylphide. It’s a sylph, or rather the Sylph, danced immaculately opening night on March 2 by Jurgita Dronina. And yet, despite the Sylph’s aletheic arabesques and the hero, James’ (Harrison James), lofty leaps, the captivating and at times hilarious portrayal of the witch Madge (Sonia Rodriguez) and the playful rendering of Gurn (Piotr Stanczyk) – one might just wonder: where is Effie?

Before the curtain rises, before anyone can see Desmond Heeley’s elaborate set or question Effie’s existence, the music – composed by Herman Severin Løvenskjold, conducted by Philip Ellis – transports the audience back nearly 200 years to the Scottish Highlands where La Sylphide takes place. The ballet tells the story of James, a man who, while dreaming of a sylph on his wedding day, awakes to find the Sylph at his fireside, urging him to leave his fiancé Effie for her. Eventually, overcome by his desire for the Sylph, James leaves his betrothed mere minutes before their marriage. James pursues the elusive Sylph and tethers her to him with a scarf, an act suggested by Madge, the witch he earlier scorned. Captured, the Sylph dies. As if a dead sylph is not tragic enough, the ballet culminates with James watching his rival, Gurn, marry Effie in his place.

But in this production, Effie is all but missing. She’s there technically, but not in a Scottish tartan skirt or sash. She appears in purple chiffon and then a creamy wedding dress, her shoes impeccably matched to both her tights and the floor like she’s just as ethereal and supernatural as the sylphs themselves. Other productions emphasize Effie’s feminine strength, maternal vigour and Scottish heritage – a match for James in both costume and character. But here Effie resembles a Victorian child: dainty, docile and nearly unearthly.

Heeley’s costuming for Effie is most unsettling, altering the very meaning of why James chases the Sylph. The Sylph is flitting, flighty and fantastical in ways Effie can never be. In following the Sylph, James rejects not only his wife but all of society. But when Effie appears in lace and ribbon, she stops representing reality and stands for an ideal – the malleable, submissive wife – and suddenly James is only chasing a better version of this idyllic woman.

Though the other village women first appear dressed in Scottish attire, Effie never does. She looks as misplaced as the sylphs, a decision unsupported by character and plot. Eventually all the women in the corps don lace and ribbon, further disturbing the female representation – after all, why are only the men in traditional Scottish attire? Where is Effie’s proper costume, the one emphasizing her strength and spirit?

It’s not that Jillian Vanstone dances the role of Effie poorly – the dancing itself is stunning, as is the rest of the production. Despite Heeley’s confusing costuming choices, the set inside the country home staggers in its daunting precision. The lighting designer, Robert Thomson, contrasts the foreboding interior and the pastoral exterior, lighting the house somewhat dimly while illuminating the infamous window with warm, fairy-tale light.

Restaged by Johan Kobborg – former Principal Dancer with The Royal Danish Ballet and The Royal Ballet in London – this version of La Sylphide retains the Danish tradition of high, virtuosic jumps and tidy, meticulous footwork. And The National Ballet of Canada’s performance delivers these key components with phenomenal precision. James performs the Bournonville jumps with understated ease. Even Stanczyk, principal dancer with the company since 2008, displays commendable professionalism when he tapers his abilities in Act One to allow James to easily upstage his short allegro solo. Gurn instantly becomes James’ inferior and it’s understood that, though they’re competing for Effie’s affection, James is clearly winning.

Dronina, as the Sylph, captivates with the simplest movements: the point of her foot, rolling into the stage, springing away; a flutter of her dainty hand, more wing-like than those sewn onto her back. She quivers around the stage, a mix of a darting hummingbird and a supple butterfly, breathing the Sylph to life. And, though her extensions are breathtaking and the arduous footwork crisp, her bourrées are most mesmerizing.

The pas de bourrée courus – a sort of “run” en pointe, where the legs are pressed together and the dancer seems to float – epitomizes the history of this ballet. La Sylphide was originally created by Fillipo Taglioni in the 1830s to showcase his daughter’s use of pointe as an artistic technique. August Bournonville later adapted the ballet and though his influence is still evident throughout, right there at the beginning is Taglioni’s – the bourrées. Dronina uses them masterfully, transporting the audience to a world where sylphs float and flutter and fly.

But in the midst of this beautifully rendered performance of La Sylphide, somewhere between the ephemeral sylphs and James’ fervent dancing, between the witty witch and the guileful Gurn, Effie was lost.

The National Ballet of Canada performs La Sylphide from March 2 through 6, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.

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