August Bournonville’s La Sylphide is perfect for Valentine’s Day because it is about love, betrayal and death. It’s commonly accepted that you’re not really in love until you are ready to die for it and this ballet has it all. Briefly, James is about to be married to Effie but a gorgeous sylph comes along while he’s napping and so Effie is toast which is fine because his faithless friend Gurn is already trying to steal her away so she has a backup plan. Sadly, James ends up killing his beloved sylph by insisting on possessing her through the use of an enchanted scarf that is thoughtfully supplied by the spitefully wicked witch, Madge. Effie runs off with Gurn, seemingly more concerned with having anyone at all rather than anyone in particular. Poor James is bereft but that’s what you get for being overly possessive.

New York City Ballet in <i>La Sylphide</i> © Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet in La Sylphide
© Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin rendered the sylph so enchantingly that I can’t imagine who could dance it better. The part of the sylph is the apotheosis of the Bournonville style of quick, airy dancing and Hyltin hit the mark in everything. Her balances were exquisite pauses in between steps, a light breath. Her pliés when coming down from pointe or landing from jumps were delicate sighs. She had the whispering bourrés that allowed her to flutter from one place to the next. She carried her upper body with perfect relaxation while her feet were flying.

Andrew Veyette, stepping in for Joaquín de Luz, was something of a disappointment as James. Where Hyltin was all ethereal lightness of being, Veyette seemed to have difficulty getting airborne. Veyette is great in other roles but he simply doesn’t fit in the Bournonville repertoire – his footwork isn’t sufficiently tidy and he doesn’t have the ballon, or ability to sustain a jump. Daniel Ullbricht as Gurn, the lousy conniving friend, was great. Supremely light on his feet, Ullbricht carried himself with ease and was a fair comic actor as well, while Brittany Pollack was a sunny and pleasant Effie. Georgina Pazcoguin, normally cast in the role of every ballet’s firecracker, played Madge, the excruciatingly evil witch. She ran away with the role, chewing up scenery right and left, and could fairly be called a firecrone. Her every moment on stage was something to watch and I had the distinct sense she was trying hard to suppress the urge to cackle in evil glee.

For all that was good about this performance of La Sylphide, including terrific work by the women’s corps de ballet, I was let down at the end. I felt insufficiently invested in James’ grief at the death of his beloved sylph. Inevitably, since Peter Martins came from the Royal Danish Ballet, one has to compare this setting to the second act staging that dancers from the RDB presented last year at the Joyce Theater. Where New York City Ballet fell short was in relating the personal drama of the story. When Danish sylph Gudrun Bojesen lost her wings and died, it was truly heartbreaking to watch. Hyltin, though she is arguably a far better technician, did not make me want to cry. Across the board, with the exception of Pazcoguin, the City Ballet dancers were just not as good at telling a story.

Sara Mearns and Ask la Cour in <i>Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2</i> © Paul Kolnik
Sara Mearns and Ask la Cour in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2
© Paul Kolnik

In the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 2, Sara Mearns bounced back from getting dropped by Ask la Cour in the first movement and turned in yet another terrific performance. Dropping his partner on Valentine’s Day is going to set him back a bundle for a make-up bouquet. Fortunately, Mearns is a buoyant dancer who can’t be kept down and her dancing of the cadenza alone was worth the price of the ticket. There’s a quality of pure abandonment in her movement that is electric. La Cour’s dancing was uninspired, lacking in elevation or élan. Savannah Lowery, not normally my favorite dancer, was terrific in the secondary lead as she was more expressive than usual. The two female soloists, Kristen Segin and Sarah Villwock looked positively diminutive partnered by la Cour opening the second movement but they were both terrific, moving with flash and assured style. Casting for this ballet had dancers of every height which gave it a ragged appearance but generally it was good ensemble work and fine playing by pianist Cameron Grant.

This Valentine’s Day program by New York City Ballet offered sentimentality and brilliance in a balanced program. While the rendering of La Sylphide ultimately fell short despite a celestial performance by Sterling Hyltin the closing Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 2 brought us back to what the company does best: fast dancing full of brio.