Emerging Arts Critics Programme

When Chasing the Sylph…

La Sylphide By Liz Ostil
  • Harrison James and Jurgita Dronina in La Sylphide / Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

… Proceed with caution! It’s easy to view Johan Kobborg’s reimagining of August Bournonville’s 1863 ballet La Sylphide as a cautionary tale against recklessly following your dreams – a stark contrast to the “free spirit” movement of western culture today.

Set to the traditional score by Herman Severin Løvenskjold, The National Ballet of Canada’s production revisits one of the oldest classical ballets, previously performed by some of the form’s prestigious elite – namely Bruhn, Baryshinkov and Nuryev. First soloist Harrison James wonderfully filled those shoes on March 2nd when he debuted as the ballet’s protagonist, James, alongside principal dancer Jurgita Dronina, who starred as the Sylph herself.

The ballet is beautifully personal, following James who, on the day of his wedding, is awakened by a Sylph (an ethereal woodland fairy) and falls madly in love with her. La Sylphide however, is more than the typical love triangle. Rather, this staging (with lighting by Robert Thomson and set and costumes by Desmond Heeley) provides the audience a glimpse of what happens to those who pursue their dreams while lacking awareness of the potential consequences of their decisions. James’ impetuous pursuit of the Sylph ultimately leads to the Sylph’s death, the loss of his fiancé and his own collapse.

James’ dilemma is one many of us face every day: should he settle for the mundane path set before him or should he follow his heart for the chance at passion and adventure? The choice is difficult because, in this case, both girls are equally likable.

It is easy to understand the lure of the Sylph though.

As Act 1 begins, the curtain rises to reveal Heeley’s romantically rustic Scottish manor. By the glowing fireplace, the Sylph is posed in adoration at the feet of a sleeping James until she kisses him awake. James is instantly captivated by the Sylph’s delicate bourrées (quick little runs en pointe giving the impression she is floating) and entranced by her flirtatious, buoyant leaps across the stage. Dronina is a fascinating work of art herself. From the way she manipulates her port de bras to become an extension of her wings, to the way she intoxicates James by coyly looking over her shoulder after each arabesque, she is a dream to watch.

In contrast to the Sylph’s flightiness, James’ impending marriage to Effie embodies responsibility and structure. Effie, performed by the exquisite Jillian Vanstone, holds her own by showing off complicated footwork despite her lack of pointe shoes. In fact, Vanstone’s precise and articulate movement is evidence that ballet does not always require pointe work to make a statement, though her soft, heeled shoes do emphasize her character’s quotidian identity. James’ downfall, however, is that he yearns for the extraordinary.

James’ longing for passion demonstrated by his virtuosic grand jetés and entre-chat-six whenever he is with the Sylph, effectively contrasts his character’s lack of excitement in the reel he dances with Effie and the corps de ballet. For the audience however, this ensemble scene is an utter delight. Here, the company is joined by students from Canada’s National Ballet School who effortlessly pull their weight alongside the adults. It’s fascinating to see so many performers moving as one, jumping to soaring heights and weaving a living tapestry.

Meanwhile, so consumed by the Sylph’s beauty, James is insulted by the mere presence of the vengeful witch Madge (characterized by the exceptionally versatile Sonia Rodriguez) and attempts to throw her out. When he sees his Sylph beckoning to him, James throws all reason out the window and abandons Effie at the altar.

If Act 1 introduces James’ questionable choices, Act 2 unveils the consequences. In a serene glade, James fails to see that he can never have the Sylph in the way he wishes. In what may be one of the most intimate pas de deux of all ballet repertoire, the exchange between James and his Sylph involves no physical contact. There are no impressive lifts overhead or multiple assisted pirouettes or passionate embraces – just two naïve beings entangling themselves in a closer, spiritual bond. Undoubtedly challenging, Dronina and James mark themselves as true artists by using the simple movement of the eyes and the flow of the body to build chemistry that can be observed from five balconies up.

The emotional intensity of the pas de deux determines the success of the tragedy that lies ahead. Unsatisfied with a Sylph he can’t hold, James accepts a conveniently magical scarf offered by the conveniently nearby Madge. As James restrains his Sylph with the scarf, her wings fall off, she loses her sight and dies.

And what happens to Effie? Once she gives up hope, she conveniently runs into James’ rival Gurn (principal Piotr Stancyk) who proposes to her. Maybe James was spared from marrying someone who gives up and settles so quickly. In the end it’s up to the audience to make that call when James tragically falls to the ground and Madge has her last laugh.

La Sylphide may not be as memorable as the more extravagant productions of The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle or Swan Lake, but once in a while, it’s good for the soul to watch a ballet that reminds you that a #yolo mindset does not absolve you of the consequences of doing exactly what you want.

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

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