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Clipped Wings

La Sylphide” is a cautionary tale. Young men should not abandon their fiancées on their wedding day; they should not be unkind to beggar-women who turn up on their doorstep; and certainly they should not attempt to capture and possess that which can never belong to them. These lessons are hard-won. By the time the ballet has ended, a sylph—a spirit of the forest—has lost her wings, gone blind and died. The transgressor has lost everything: his family, his future, and, quite possibly his life.

Performance

Sarasota Ballet: “La Sylphide”

Place

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Sarasota, FL March 24-25, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Macarena Gimenez and Luke Schaufuss in Johan Kobborg's "La Sylphide." Photograph by Frank Atura

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The story—at first picturesque, with flashes of comedy, then magical, and finally deadly—was first turned into a ballet by Filippo Taglioni in 1832; four years later it was restaged and re-choreographed to a new score by Herman Severin Løvenskiold, by the Danish dancer, ballet master and choreographer August Bournonville. It is this version that has survived, and is now considered the oldest ballet in the standard repertory.

Anna Pellegrino & Ricardo Rhodes in Johan Kobborg's "La Sylphide." Photograph by Frank Atura

And yet, despite its bitter denouement, the ballet contains much delight, particularly in the dancing, reflecting Bournonville’s love of fast, complex, buoyant footwork, both for the men and the women. There is a kind of egalitarianism in Bournonville. The women often execute the same steps, on or off pointe, as the men, and there is little if any partnering. I counted three occasions on which the male protagonist, James, touches his female counterpart, the Sylph, and never with more than the tips of his fingers.

The performance I was watching took place at Sarasota Ballet on March 24 and March 25, a company premiere of a staging by the Danish dancer and sometime choreographer Johan Kobborg. Kobborg has previously set “La Sylphide” on the Bolshoi Ballet (commissioned by then-director Alexei Ratmansky) and the Royal Ballet. It is one of the most faithful renditions one can see today, with sets and costumes that make no attempt to update or gussy up the settings—a Scottish farmhouse and forest glade—, traditional characterizations, mime, and clean, crisp Bournonville technique. (One detail I didn’t love was the “laddish” attitude of James’s two friends in the first scene; I doubt men hung out with their shirts unbuttoned to their waists in Bournonville’s time.) But it’s clear that Kobborg, once an excellent James himself, understands the ballet through and through, and even these small liberties are the product of deep acquaintance.

Emelia Perkins, Marijana Dominis, Sierra Abelardo in Johan Kobborg's "La Sylphide." Photograph by Frank Atura

The only changes Kobborg has made are a couple of interpolated musical fragments that had been lost over time and were recently recovered in the archives. For these sections, which include a short pas de six for for a group of wedding guests in the first act, and a little proto-pas-de-deux in the second, Kobborg has added his own choreography, very much in the style of Bournonville. The pas de six is like a Bournonville primer, with lots of beats, échappés that resolve into crisp retirés to the knee, entrechats, and little ronds de jambe en l’air. I’m not sure how much they add to the story or the arc of the dancing, but they give the dancers more to do.

Sarasota Ballet has the uncommon quality of being able to convincingly adapt from one choreographer’s style to another with full commitment and belief. It’s not a company of virtuosos, but the dancing is impeccable, un-mannered, and clear. When they dance Balanchine, it looks like Balanchine. The same is true for Ashton, whose works are a mainstay of the repertory—the directors are English. It turns out to be true for the Bournonville of “La Sylphide” as well. The dancing at both performances was light and buoyant; the shapes unforced and gracious; the dancer’s heads swayed with the choreography, and shoulders tilted. You could see every little rond of the foot, whether executed in character shoes during the Scottish reel in Act I, or in pointe shoes in the second act, by the sylphs in the forest. And the dancing was musical, responsive to the playing of the Sarasota Orchestra under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins.

Macarena Gimenez and Luke Schaufuss in Johan Kobborg's "La Sylphide." Photograph by Frank Atura

The two casts I saw were led by highly contrasting ballerinas: the Argentine Macarena Gimenez on the evening of March 24, and the veteran Sarasota principal Danielle Brown on March 25. Their corresponding Jameses were Luke Schaufuss—son of the Danish star Peter Schaufuss–and Maximiliano Iglesias, husband of Gimenez. One could not imagine two more different sylphs. Gimenez was sweetness personified, with a kind of butterfly-wing, diaphanous quality, particularly in the arms. Also lovely was the way she coordinated her upper and lower body, so that her movements seemed to flow from the tip of her toe to the crown of her head, in a sinuous wave. She lived and breathed inside the music. Her acting was animated and warm, even, at times, a little coy. Her death scene was especially devastating. When James finally captured her with a poisoned scarf, wrapping it around her arms in an attempt to bind her to him, her body went limp and her face empty. Watching her advance slowly, feeling her way through the darkness, felt almost obscene.

Brown, a taller, bolder dancer, remade the role to her own qualities: a kind of simplicity, purity, and lack of guile. Of the two, she seemed the most aware of the line between human and spirit. She smiled less. Her relationship with James was less playful, more driven by curiosity. Like Gimenez, she has lovely jump, with softer landings. Her sylph was touchingly pared-down.

Their Jameses were no less different. Gimenez’s warmth was tempered by Luke Schaufuss’s slight reserve. In contrast, from the start, Maximiliano Iglesias was warm, engaged, impetuous. His remorse at the end was very moving; he seemed to realize just how terribly he had behaved. Both men danced with clean footwork and soaring jumps, and the élan and phrasing that are so particularly Bournonvillian, each jump leading into the next and the next as the body fills the space with its trajectory, forward and back and sideways and in semicircles and zig-zags. Each male variation in “La Sylphide” is a tour de force; you hold your breath from beginning to end, your eyes widening more and more. And none of it is show-off stuff. Just pure dancing.

Macarena Gimenez, Luke Schaufuss and the Sarasota Ballet in Johan Kobborg's "La Sylphide." Photograph by Frank Atura

James’s chief sin is arrogance. He thinks he can do better and live a more exciting life than the one that he has been given. His fiancée Effie, pertly and touchingly danced by Anna Pellegrino (Friday) and Marijana Dominis (Saturday matinee), deserves better, and gets it. She finds happiness with a man who is humble enough to love her for who she is. Gurn, the second male lead, gets a soaring but less emphatic solo in the first act. The role was danced with an affable touch by Ricardo Rhodes on Friday. Samuel Gest came across as younger and more eager at the matinee.

James is incapable of generosity or kindness, neither toward poor Gurn, nor, more importantly, toward the mysterious old woman who turns up at the farmhouse. (Gurn, in contrast, is kind to her.) It is a grave mistake. That old woman is a witch (Madge), with terrible powers, which she turns against James. Madge, a mime role, can be played by a man or woman; here they took turns. Ricki Bertoni (a man) was the witch on opening night; Lauren Ostrander performed at the matinee. Bertoni, with his aggressive limp and sharp movements was more terrifying, more obviously powerful. Ostrander’s interpretation had a hint of irony, and of flirtatiousness. There was the suggestion that her mistreatment at James’s hands offended not only her sense of importance, but also her femininity. Her vengeance—she is the last person left alive onstage—came off with particular relish.

It is one of the great ballet endings. The forest wins. Magic wins. And order wins. (Effie will live happily ever after.) And, as the curtain came down, it was clear that Sarasota Ballet had accomplished what it set out to. It now has fine “La Sylphide” on its hands—yet another jewel in its growing repertoire.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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