Australia's Queensland Ballet is a relatively young company. Founded in 1960 by dancer Charles Lisner, the company is now under the artistic direction of Li Cunxin, internationally known for his best-selling autobiography Mao Last Dancer. Since his appointment in 2012, Li is broadening the scope of performances of the company, which now tours extensively in Australia and abroad. For its first ever visit to London, the company presents the much-loved and award winning version of La Sylphide by former dancer and choreographer Peter Schaufuss. The choice has proved a wise decision since on the opening night on 5 August, Queensland Ballet offered a brilliant performance of the piece.

Queensland Ballet in <i>La Sylphide</i>
Queensland Ballet in La Sylphide

 

An epitome of both Romantic ballet and the Danish ballet tradition, La Sylphide is an attractive ballet for dancers and audiences alike but it is not frequently performed in London. Schaufuss’s production was first staged here in 1979 for English National Ballet, then under his artistic direction. The ballet was an immediate success, winning Olivier and Evening Standard Awards. For his revival, Schaufuss drew from his traditional training at the Royal Danish Ballet School, attempting to stay as close as possible to Bournonville’s original choreography. When dancing, he himself had learnt the role of James from Royal Danish Ballet Master Hans Brenaa, who in turn had learnt from Hans Beck, Bournonville’s last star pupil. Lineage was maintained at the London Coliseum, since Schaufuss’s son Luke (Birmingham Royal Ballet) and daughter Tara both danced in the opening night of Queensland Ballet.

The production looks fresh and gorgeous. The set and costumes (designs by David Walker) create an atmosphere of cosy eeriness. With dominant greens, they evoke an elegant, rural Scotland where forests hide magical creatures. The music by Herman Severin Løvenskjold was played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the conduction of Andrew Mogrelia. After a timid start, the score filled the ample auditorium of the Coliseum with Scotland-inspired tunes and mysterious Romantic melodies. The choreography is generous in supplying opportunities to showcase the best aspects of Bournonville’s style: soft, fast footwork, supple épaulement, light, ballonés, elevations, and joyful expressiveness. In the clean, lively rendering by Queensland Ballet, the Danish tradition of dancing was an absolute pleasure to watch.

Curiously enough, the chemistry between the two main characters of the ballet, James and the Sylphide, was the weakest aspect of the performance. Luke Schaufuss danced the role of James with great technical ability but lacked a similar confidence in acting skills and stage presence. Similarly, Sarah Thompson demonstrated brilliant, serene technique, but her expression looked too remote to attract any human passion, especially in the opening scenes. The Schaufuss/Thompson partnering became more touching as the ballet progressed but I felt that the story of unattainable love that is at the heart of the ballet could have been more powerfully delivered with a more vivid interaction between the two dancers. 

Mia Heathcote, dancing the role of James’ bride Effie, was a luminous presence on stage. She was sparkling and lively, offering the perfect expressive contrast to the ghostly Sylphide and to the sinister Madge. The latter, a character role, was played with a commanding yet perfectly restrained presence by the Ballet Master of the company, Greg Horsman. Vito Bernasconi, in the role of Effie’s suitor Gurn, added a light touch of humour to the story, making his character lovable and deserving of Effie’s heart at the end of the ballet. The corps de ballet, superb both as the groups of sylphs and as the ensemble for the wedding festivities danced with clean, fast technique, conveying a sense of effortlessness and enjoyment that was warmly welcomed by the audience. On their first visit to London, the dancers left an excellent impression of Queensland Ballet.

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