La Sylphide is about a man who leaves his real-life fiancée to chase after a beautiful apparition with wings. It's the oldest ballet still produced by major companies, but rather than feel antiquated in its depiction of heterosexual-male idealizations of love, it has a hauntingly timeless quality – the story tragic, ineluctable, and then so excruciatingly familiar.
The National Ballet's production, choreographed by Johan Kobborg, captures the searing expressivity of ballet at the dawn of its modern birth. I've never seen La Sylphide performed live before and it made for a magical, almost disorienting, experience. You get a sense of what Romanticism would have felt like to the Romantics, when emotion, nostalgia and intuition came crashing down on rationalism to gain fresh aesthetic reign. But then the ballet also had me thinking of something I read in the New Yorker just last month –Adelle Waldman's article on the different ways that male and female authors conceptualize love. In Waldman's analysis, men fetishize the "mysterious and irrational," while women exhibit "the desire to find an equal, the belief that love in its ideal form should comprise a meeting of minds as well as of bodies." It's the sign of some enduring art to draw swift shorthand across three centuries, and all these ideas are present in La Sylphide.
The ballet is set in the blustery highlands of early 19th-century Scotland – a world of burgeoning national pride and heroism. The beautiful apparition (a.k.a. La Sylphide) warns her admirer, James, that she's not a real woman. Any physical contact will kill her, so if he wants to love her, he must do it from afar, without any hope of touching her, let alone of sexual consummation. But James can't bring himself to believe a word of this –surely the beautiful apparition must be playing hard to get! He dumps his fiancée and traps the Sylphide with his scarf (or, more specifically, a scarf belonging to an evil witch named Madge). But no sooner than he has the object of his affection in his arms, the apparition's wings fall off, she goes instantly blind and her body shrivels up beyond recognition. In the meantime, the fiancée has married a guy she can connect with on a more temporal level.
La Sylphide first debuted at the Paris Opera in 1832, but the version that's been handed down across generations was readapted by the Danish dancer and choreographer August Bournonville in 1836. Bournonville was a ballet innovator, obsessed with dissecting technique and with restoring ballet's poise and propriety – conventional thinking at the time was that the French had gone too showy. He melded new athleticism with classical decorum and became particularly known for his demanding petit allegro (small jumps), which he pulled, uniquely, towards the downbeat, using little plié, and often landing on a lifted heel. From a dancing perspective, this requires inordinate strength and control. There's no way to fake in Bournonville; you need stamina and precision.
The quality of the dancing on opening night was so sublime that it alone could recommend the production, if I hadn't also been so moved by other elements. In the role of James, Harrison James seemed like a hero out of Walter Scott – he was dashing, powerful and regal. Between his apparently effortless ability to master the sequences of low, inflected jumps, James bursts into soaring grand jetés and the famous series of entrechats-six (thrilling, beated jumps, performed high in the air). There's a rare poise to his quality of movement; it's matched with clarity and elegance. Bournonville is known for having reinvented the danseur noble, taking the ballerina off her pedestal and placing the male dancer on equal (if not higher) ground. Watching James –and luxuriating in his unadorned presence and weight – you understand what the danseur of this era must have looked like.
There isn't supposed to be much of a connective thread between the original La Sylphide danced by Marie Taglioni in 1832 and this version. But Jurgita Dronina's interpretation of the winged being is infused with the mix of earthy and ethereal often used to describe the richness of Taglioni's dancing. Dronina is an irresistible performer. She's more than a vision of Romanticism with her long feet, supple extensions and watery port de bras; there is sensuality in her movement that teeters between the creature and the woman, teasing us with the ever-present possibility of her humanness. One of the loveliest qualities of her dancing is the softness of her upper body, allowing for a pliable fluidity as she courses across the stage.
I was worried that the Act 1 group dances – the men in kilts, the women in soft shoes – would veer towards the folksy. But the unusual technique – like low swift glissades, pulling oddly towards the floor – was consistently interesting. And no review of this production would be complete without mention of Sonia Rondriguez's insatiably bitter and intensely sardonic Madge.
When the retinue of sylphides join Dronina onstage, the bluish meadow has the light of a Delacroix painting (the pastoral sets are by Desmond Heeley; the transportive lighting by Robert Thomson). On flat feet, the dancers perform a series of développé en avant, before dipping forward into the titled arabesque so symbolic of early ballet. The effect feels delirious and dreamlike, wild and pure. There's a stirring overlap between the dancers and their setting, the sense of weight and weightlessness, of external beauty and internal desire. La Sylphide will fascinate anyone interested in the history of ballet. But, even more impressively, it's access into the essence of Romanticism itself.
La Sylphide continues in Toronto until March 6 (national.ballet.ca).