writers on dancing


In Another Tradition

“La Sylphide”, “The Lesson”, “Les Rendezvous”
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London, U.K.
6 October – 9 November 2005

by Eva Kistrup
copyright ©2005 by Eva Kistrup   

The two glorious European royal ballets, The Royal Ballet in London and The Royal Danish Ballet in Copehnagen, have never had strong ties nor exchanged many productions over the years—strangely enough, as they share a common factor in Vera Volkova, the ground breaking teacher, so central a coach for the leading stars in both companies from Margot Fonteyn to Henning Kronstam and Kirsten Simone. Save for Ashton's "Romeo & Juliet" and "La Fille Mal Gardee," MacMillan's "Manon" and a few short works, British ballets have never held a place in the Danish repertory. And in UK it was more the English National Ballet, or Festival Ballet as it was previously known, who carried the torch by presenting Harald Landers' "Etudes" and Bournonville ballets, although mostly in Peter Schaufuss's vulgar and stretched productions. It is therefore a great initiative for the Royal Ballet to produce an evening consisting of Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson" and, much more importantly, Bournonville's "La Sylphide".

The production is directed by Johan Kobborg, the Royal Ballet's Danish principal, now on his fifth season. He was assisted by Sorella Englund, a former Sylph and the reigning Madge of the last 25 years. The décor and costumes, borrowed from the Royal Danish Ballet, are the long worn decorations used from 1965 to 2004, and recognised with much sympathy and love by visiting Danes.

For some performances, including the one I saw, "The Lesson" was replaced by Ashton's "Les Rendezvous," a divertissement for lead couple, pas de trios and corps. "Les Rendezvous," even with its updated décor, including colourful chic polka dot dresses, looked locked in a time bubble. It cannot be disguised—nor should it—as anything else than what it isa work from 1933 of the recently founded Vic Wells ballet, then an early attempt to form a professional ballet company, and a ballet by a young choreographer defining his style. But unlike Balanchine, Ashton's works cannot be separated from their time, and although well danced it remained more of a poignant look back than a work existing on its own merit.

The much older "La Sylphide" looked a younger ballet, and the classic it is. The first performance, which I did not see, had the benefit of Sorella Englund's Madge, a world class performance and one that would inspire the other cast members to follow her lead in abandoned character acting.

When Danish dancers speak about their character building techniques, they will say that you have to be the character for the whole performance. Flemming Ryberg, our distingused Bournonville dancer and mime, once said that following a performance of "La Sylphide," he could not shake off the character of James for a few days. This is the sort of commitment to the roles that are needed to bring "La Sylphide" up to the level of an existential drama; with such commitment, the ballet can equal the best "Hamlet." Unfortunately the cast I saw seemed completely unaware of what the characters can be and how to get there. Rupert Pennefather walked though his part without ever hinting he had an understanding of the passion and despair of James. Although Kobborg will dance James himself later, I could not help concluding that it might have been better, moving him to the front end, as it would have given the young dancers an idea of what is needed so that they could at least make an attempt to copy it. Tamara Rojo as the Sylph fared somewhat better but started the performance with the most tragic expression, so instead of increasing the tragedy, it decreased. Elisabeth McGorian as Madge had not really a grip of the role— surprisingly as she should have benefited from Englund's coaching.

Fortunately the company fared much better in the dancing department. Kobborg has made a few additions of small importance and the corps moved well. It would have been marvelous if the Royal Ballet could have nailed the ballet in first try, but that is not very likely. You cannot aquire a totally different tradition in a month, but hopefully they will keep the ballet in repertoire for a long time, and perhaps support it by bringing in a few Danish guest stars or exchange visits to Copenhagen, to help the RB dancers understand the character building process. That would benefit the production and it would benefit the dancers for their other assignments.

Photos, all by Johan Persson:
First: Tamara Rojo as The Sylph and Rupert Pennefather as James.
Second: Sorella Englund as Madge, in "La Sylphide."

Volume 3, No. 38
October 17, 2005

copyright ©2005 Eva Kistrup



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last updated on October 17, 2005