For all the talk of them being the happiest of dancers, the Danes seem oddly at home in tragedy. It was impossible not to notice how markedly downbeat the Royal Danish Ballet’s program was on Friday. We again saw The Lesson, that dreadful Flemming Flindt work about a young girl’s assault and murder, followed by August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, an iconic Romantic ballet that witnesses the triumph of evil over good. Some start to the weekend!
Yet after the The Lesson‘s torture, La Sylphide — the classic tale of a Scotsman’s doomed affair with a sylph — was a delight. Choreographed by Bournonville in 1836, La Sylphide is one of few Romantic ballets still performed with all the original steps, offering a rich taste of Bournonville style. (Compare with companies such as American Ballet Theatre, where nearly every story ballet is made “after” a great choreographer.) Friday’s cast — featuring Ulrik Birkkjær as James, Gudrun Bojesen as La Sylphide, and Sorella Englund as Madge — gave subtle performances that radiated with intensity. The gingham kilts and skirts moved more beautifully than I’d imagined. (Although that didn’t stop a gentleman sitting nearby from being scandalized by James’s black socks: “They’re always blue or green to match his kilt.”)
The original 1832 Paris production of La Sylphide was revolutionary for elevating pointework from acrobatics to artistry, so it was alarming to see the toes used so infrequently in Bournonville’s version. He employs it as an otherworldly effect, to separate the weightless sylphs (“spirits of the air”) from the ballet’s mortal, earth-bound characters. Pointework first enters in the sylph’s opening solo, when she dances delicately around the sleeping James. Later, in what are perhaps the the ballet’s most memorable moments, we spot the sylph in a window overlooking James and Effy’s wedding celebration, flying in place on the tips of her toes. (The revelers, meanwhile, seem embrace the ground with their percussive jigs.) Not until the second act, when James encounters the full sisterhood of sylphs in the forest, do we see more than one woman on point. Bournonville’s choreography is famous for its restraint — low leg lifts, a lack of showiness, general politeness — and La Sylphide reveals how pointework fits into this “less is more” philosophy. Its occasional use in La Sylphide makes it more thrilling and more remarkable: You certainly don’t take it for granted.
The dancing was exceptional throughout the ballet, but the most pleasant surprise was the mime. It usually bores me, too often seeming contrived or confusing, but this performance convinced me of its potential. The difference is that Danes believe in it (Not much has changed, obviously, since Arlene Croce wrote in 1976, “The Danes bring a quality to miming that endows that sick art with new life. This is visual conversation, paragraphs of it, running in counterpoint, overlapped and interrupted to complicated beats.” There’s no better way of putting it.) Englund in particular is a marvel, using her arms articulately and expansively to tell fortunes, brew potions, and reveal the sinister facets of her character. Her arms seem to control the ballet.
All that was amiss with La Sylphide on Friday — aside from the illusion-shattering thud made by sylph’s plastic wings when they fell to the floor just before her death — was that it followed The Lesson. This was a program too thickly saturated in death, pain, and loss. To me, however, the real tragedy is that I likely won’t see La Sylphide again for many years. There are countless opportunities to see dance in New York, of course, but the Danes have proven to me that the ballet world is a large one indeed, and that there are other, equally powerful approaches to classical dance.