writers on dancing


Breathing Life Into "Les Sylphides"

"Les Sylphides," "Mozartiana," "Amazed in Burning Dreams"
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
November 5, 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff

Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides” is so distant in tone, subject, and technique from what today’s ballet dancers are trained to put over that when American Ballet Theatre announced that it would revive the ballet, along with several others by Fokine, after an absence from the repertory of nearly two decades, one might have well wondered, “Why?” The answer became clear at the first performance of the lovingly curated new production this season: because audiences need it. We are starved for intricate patterning on the ballet stage and for the magic involved in transforming a massed force into a weightless image—the kind of effect one sees at sunset, when flocks of birds, before settling down to sleep, rise and wheel, like handwriting. We are also starved for a certain kind of deportment in the human figure—for an alliance of tenderness and self-sufficiency, for privacy and respect, for beauty that emerges fully formed, without a Darwinian dark side. We are starved for the Renaissance.

With its long white Romantic tutus for the corps de ballet and three principal ballerinas and flowing poet’s shirt for the lone man, “Les Sylphides” has the superficial look of mid-19th century narrative ballets that ended in tragedy; yet in terms of structure, phrasing, and point of view the resemblance between Fokine’s masterpiece and “Giselle” or “La Sylphide” is glancing. Fokine’s poet and sylphs are not characters who evolve or change in any psychological way: they are theatrical conveniences that give a local habitation and a name to abstract processes whose true characters are Space, Time, Mass, Pattern, Texture, and, most important, Musical Response. To recognize these elements is not something that most audiences are likely to do without the assistance of a setting and costumes, although the experiment of removing them was famously attempted.

In January of 1972, when Alexandra Danilova staged “Les Sylphides” for the New York City Ballet, under the original, pre-Ballets Russes title “Chopiniana,” she and George Balanchine were severely criticized for having it performed in practice clothes rather than tutus, removing the forest set, restoring the Chopin to the piano rather than the Ballets Russes orchestrations, and eliminating the pantomimic gestures. Danilova’s justifications had merit, however, and they included the fact that in the 1908 student production in St. Petersburg, Fokine’s ballet had no pantomime, was called “Chopiniana,” and accompanied by a piano. Six months later, Balanchine went on to demonstrate at the Stravinsky Festival that everything fundamental to “Les Sylphides” could be realized entirely through choreography, on an undressed stage, with the dancers in practice clothes, from the management of patterning for large groups, as in “Violin Concerto” and “Symphony in Three Movements” to the intimacy and adoration of the pas de deux (“Duo Concertante”). Fokine, so deeply attached to narrative and character, never could have achieved that jump in thinking, and even the formidable visionary Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned the Chopin orchestrations as well as the Alexandre Benois setting for Fokine’s early work and who changed the name of the ballet from “Chopiniana” to “Les Sylphides,” might not have been inclined to think so far out of the box.

Yet in 2004, what was once outside the box is now the box itself. Kirk Peterson, the ABT ballet master who brought back “Les Sylphides” as the company had performed it when he was a principal dancer in the 1970’s, has emphasized the elements of pantomime as well as the structural detail, and the return of tenderness in the port de bras for the corps, especially, is very welcome. ABT’s dancers, who have extraordinary gifts yet who also tend to play to the audience, to (as one observer put it) comment on their own performances as they give them, are chastened in this ballet. They don’t completely yield to the Art Nouveau-like nuances for the upper body, but they also don’t break the fourth wall, and that gives the work a surface tension, which is lamentably absent in the company’s performances of, say, Balanchine’s “Mozartiana.” At this performance, the second cast of “Les Sylphides,” the principals were Julie Kent and Maxim Belotserkovsky, and they offered a model of what I can only call artistry. Ms. Kent, especially, was a treasure, making unemphatic distinctions of phrasing in transition steps and regulating her gestures so that they seemed entirely spontaneous and confiding.

The opening “Nocturne” for the ensemble is one of the glories of the New York season. Soloists Yuriko Kajiya and Stella Abrera were not quite of the principals’ caliber, yet they tried for delicacy and spontaneity, and one was heartened to see them try. The corps de ballet’s interlacing sculptural tableaux stop the heart. And, rumpled as Benois’ grey-blue forest scenery looks, it casts its own looming spell. Now comes the task of maintenance.

In “Mozartiana,” Maria Riccetto and Angel Corella (going in for the injured Ethan Stiefel) presented the ballet as something of a flash act. Riccetto, so lovely as the young girl in Fokine’s “Spectre de la Rose,” danced the ballerina part in the Balanchine work with dispatch and austerity, like someone snapping shut a purse. Corella became the focus of the dance, and as charming as he is to watch, I missed the ballet called “Mozartiana.” (During the bows, when Riccetto was presented with a bouquet she plucked a rose from it and kept that, giving the rest of the flowers to Corella, who, a little embarrassed, set them down on the stage.) None of the casts I’ve seen in this fragile work have been able to hold it together this season. The ballet activates audience response as a crowd-pleaser, but it’s more than that. Carlos Lopez in the Gigue was wonderfully centered yet, on this evening, he also kept calling attention to the ends of phrases with little dramatic flourishes and expressions. By Sunday, he had toned down his presentation. Perhaps a combination of more chances to perform “Mozartiana” and some touch-up coaching by its ABT stager, Maria Calegari, might help.

The evening concluded with Mr. Peterson’s “Amazed in Burning Dreams” from 1993, part of a trilogy by the choreographer to the music of Philip Glass. It is a hard-driving, enigmatic work with several shamelessly applause-milking climaxes and also a number of haunting images, which one remembers as isolated effects. Herman Cornejo created a sensation in the male solo, and Misty Copeland, Grant DeLong, and Erica Cornejo coped well with the brutal efficiency of the other leading roles. There is much smart stagecraft to admire in “Amazed,” and it certainly does its job as a rousing closer. For me, at least, though, the best of Mr. Peterson currently on view is in his production of “Les Sylphides.”

Volume 2, No. 42
November 8, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mindy Aloff


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