LA SYLPHIDE AT THE NEW YORK CITY BALLET
by Brian Schaefer
Romantic Ballet, Victorian Morals, and the Wisdom of Sondheim
The Baker’s Wife said it best: “These are dangerous woods.” So she learned after adulterously kissing the prince in Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Into the Woods—a deed for which she’ll later pay. In his subversive tapestry of fairy tales, Sondheim has identified the perfect geological metaphor for inner turmoil: an ominous no man’s land of trails, thickets, foggy ponds, and imposing trees as a stand-in for our deepest, darkest, most unknowable selves. It’s a place that’s guaranteed to get you good and lost, both physically and emotionally.
The great 19th-century ballets have regularly relied on the motif of the woods to evoke adventure, discovery, and danger. Swan Lake is tucked away in a gloomy forest that looks remarkably similar to the Willis’ lair in Giselle. The woods, a mysterious world separate from the safety and clarity of the village, are easy to stumble upon but difficult to escape. In psychological terms, the woods are the equivalent of emotional quicksand.
In Romantic ballet, it’s men doing the seeking and, often, weeping in the end: Siegfried follows Odette, Albrecht chases the ghost of Giselle, and in La Sylphide—which joined the New York City Ballet repertory in May—James pursues an elusive fairy. And James, like his ballet brothers, doesn’t just find himself in the forest on a lark. He escapes there to avoid an impending marriage and ditch a privileged but humdrum life in search of something new and pure. As per tradition, this longing is embodied by a woman in white.
La Sylphide, hailing from Denmark, is also an important stamp in City Ballet’s passport. Given the strong historic relationship between City Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB), it’s unfortunate that cultural exchanges don’t occur more often. Balanchine taught regularly at RDB in the 1930s, and greatly admired August Bournonville, the storied company director and choreographer who gave the RDB its own library of classics—of which La Sylphide is a staple. (Meanwhile, the current RDB artistic director, Nikolaj Hübbe, was a City Ballet principal and Peter Martins, who began his career at RDB, has been at the helm of City Ballet since 1989.)
Bournonville also gave the Danes a national style: flitting footwork juxtaposing a regally calm upper body; a breathy, springy bounce; arm positions that welcome the audience with generosity; and a preference for arabesque legs bent in attitude—imbuing the dancer with a demure humility one wouldn’t ascribe to her Russian counterpart. Perhaps my favorite mark of the Bournonville brand is the precision required of the dancer’s head, which is always tilted just so, or turning quickly with a flirty snap.
Choreographically, Martins’s version of La Sylphide (set on the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1985) hews closely to Bournonville’s, which premiered in 1836 and was inspired by an 1832 French ballet by Filippo Taglioni. For its New York premiere, it is paired with Bournonville Divertissements, which the Danish teacher Stanley Williams—a mentor to Martins—first staged for City Ballet in 1977.
The unabashed cheeriness of Divertissements is a refreshing departure for City Ballet, whose dancers tend to sport smirks more than smiles. Yet one of the most important ingredients in Bournonville’s style is its perceived effortlessness: like a fine watch, the intricate mechanics are out of sight. Sometimes, though, particularly amongst the corps dancers on the evening I attended, the effort shone through in tense arms, rushed feet feeding uncontrolled pirouettes, and grins hanging on for dear life. As skilled as these dancers are at adapting to diverse styles, it’s a testament to the rigor and exactitude demanded of Bournonville’s technique that his style couldn’t be wholly conquered in a few months of rehearsal.
La Sylphide is more forgiving than the non-stop dance of the Divertissements, technically speaking, because it’s concerned with narrative and emotion, so gesture and expression matter more. The setting is a Scottish hunting lodge; the kilts are a peculiar purple. James is set to marry Effie, but his friend Gurn is in love with her, too. On his wedding day, a Sylph visits and makes him suddenly rethink his nuptials. (Pantomime is a major part of the storytelling in Bournonville ballet—it’s largely a foreign language for City Ballet dancers, but they speak it well here.) During a fantastic Broadway-worthy ensemble number inspired by Scottish folk steps, James abandons Effie and flees to the woods to find his Sylph.
Why, in Romantic ballets, are men always rashly leaving unhappy relationships for women who are not real? They are always swans, ghosts, or fairies—all possibly illusions. So what are the men really after? Freedom, perhaps: an escape from convention, a release from scripted lives. (Today we call it “cold feet.”) But rarely in the 19th century does forgoing your social obligations end well, and so it is for James, who gets tricked by the witch Madge into killing his otherworldly woman in white. The Baker’s Wife met a similar end after losing her Victorian moral compass: “There are vows, there are ties / There are needs, there are standards / There are shouldn’ts and shoulds,” she sang, presciently. Beware of transgressions in the woods—not just the physical forests outside, but the emotional, rebellious ones inside.