After the reconstruction, at the beginning of the season, of the classicist pearl that is Marius Petipa’s La Bayadere (1877), the Staatsballett travels back in time again with August Bournonville’s La Sylphide (1836). Dipping one hand in the mists of the Romantic period and having one foot at the forefront of contemporaneity, the Staatsballett continues its balancing in penché split betwern the different traditions and styles that form ballet today. Compared with the mammoth four-acts Bayadère, the two-acts Sylphide feels light and springy. And… alas, the enchantment is over in no time!

Maria Kochetkova  in Staatsballett Berlin's <i>La Sylphide</i> © Yan Revazov
Maria Kochetkova in Staatsballett Berlin's La Sylphide
© Yan Revazov

Last presented in Berlin in 2008, La Sylphide is a homage to the Danish dancing tradition characterised by ifs ballon, épaulement and a specific mime. Trained in Paris, Bournonville partnered Marie Taglioni and was able to witness her in Filippo Taglioni’s – her father – Sylphide in 1832 (yeah, that very first time when a brief balance on pointe became significant in a dance narration and central to ballet later on). Once back in Copenhagen, he commissioned the Norwegian composer Herman Severin Løvenskjold for a new partiture – the copyrights were too expensive – producing his own version of the dance four years later. A great dancer himself – he danced as James in the premiere – he elevated the role of men away from the simple porteur of the ballerina. Bournonville left no notation of the dance, only a few notes on the libretto. It is sheer oral tradition that preserved the dance and the dancing style at the Royal Danish Ballet. The constant staging throughout the years, 180 in total, allowed for many details to be retained. A recurring figure in history before becoming the icon of the Romanticism, the sylphide or sylph is a spirit without a soul, a creature of the supernatural. In the dance, she lures the young James away from his house and his betrothed, Effy, to the magic of the woods and her people. Enthralled, James wants her as his wife. He captures her with a enchanted shawl he received from a witch but the shawl is poisoned and the Sylphide looses her wings and dies, leaving James destroyed while in the background, Effy runs off with another man. The moral judgment of the tale is as brutal as it is clear: keep your irrational part under rational control.

Marian Walter, Alicia Ruben and artists of the Staatsballett Berlin in <i>La Sylphide</i> © Yan Revazov
Marian Walter, Alicia Ruben and artists of the Staatsballett Berlin in La Sylphide
© Yan Revazov

‘Kilts and kicks’ or ‘kilts and beats’ could be the catch phrase for the evening. The Staatsballett’s production is a real feast for the eyes and the dancers enchant with their interpretation. Through the coaching of Frank Andersen, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, the company presents another kind of virtuosism: understated and elegant. There is no display of high legs but rather sequences of never-ending bouncing and leaps for the sylphide, the airy and adorably cheeky Maria Kochetkova, and James’ battery section, the stylishly neat and candidly adventurous Marian Walter. Their interpretation together with that of Alicia Ruben as Effy and of Ulian Topor as Gurn (Effy’s new lover) is spot on both technically and artistically making them totally believable. Aurora Dickie’s miming, as Madge the witch and mediator between the rational and irrational in the tale, is also superb, while the corps de ballet produces a breathtaking, endless labyrinth of sylphides during the second act, or white act of the dance, in which James has to find her (there has been a couple of minor wobbles). Finally, the students of the Staatliche Balletschule do a good job in the first mouvement of the dance, the hunting lodge. This is a very entertaining scene with beautiful tartan costumes, kilts for the men and puff skirts for the women. The group prepares for the wedding, but the scene is so busy that we miss some of the jokes. Several theatrical tricks very popular in the Romantic period are also worthy of mention: the sylphide disappearing through the chimney in the hunting lodge and then at the end when we see her literally crossing the sky for her funeral. This would have really given the impression of magic to the audience.

The Staatsballett Berlin in <i>La Sylphide</i> © Yan Revazov
The Staatsballett Berlin in La Sylphide
© Yan Revazov

You would think that combining a tragic Romantic love story with springing ghosts and present it to a contemporary audience would be a recipe for disaster, but exactly the opposite happens as we exit the sixties building of the Deutsche Oper still dreaming. I am really appreciating this dynamic of reconstructions with thorough information in the programme notes alternating with contemporary programmes. This is a clever way to present works, as there is something for everyone. And for my part, the Staatsballett has really convinced me to check out the rest of the season.

*****