The theme of impossible love crops up frequently in full-length classic ballets from the Romantic era. But La Sylphide, performed less often than Swan Lake, Giselle or others of this genre, has a character all its own.
Originally choreographed in Paris by Philippe Taglioni in 1832 and retooled by Danish master Auguste Bournonville four years later, this morality tale of passion versus duty bewitched audiences in the 19th century and continues to do so today. The ballet is set in Scotland, where a dreamy laird named James finds himself hopelessly in love on his wedding day: not with his bride, but with a vision of a magical sylph. No good can come of such a situation, and James pays the price.
Along the way, we see some of the most beautifully crafted dances of classic ballet. The joyous wedding Reel of Act I and the ethereal leaps of the sylph and her fellow spirits in the moonlit forest of Act II make La Sylphide a favorite not only of audiences, but of dancers as well.
"I've been relearning the ballet and I have to say, I forgot how much I like it," said Jeffrey Gribler, ballet master of Pennsylvania Ballet. As a former Principal Dancer with the Company, Gribler danced the role of James as well as the second lead, James's friend Gurn. "It's one of the most tragic of all the classic ballets," Gribler continued. "It's such a clear, concise story, done in an hour. It probably has the least mass appeal of the classics, and it's so very quiet, in a way. But it's also wonderfully full of life. I think the Reel in Act I is probably the most fun character dance in all of ballet. It's fun to watch and it's fun to do."
Gribler shared staging duties for this production with the troupe's ballet mistress Tamara Hadley and Artistic Director Roy Kaiser, both fellow former principal dancers with the Company. While Gribler was in charge of the first act in the Scottish manse, Hadley, who danced the role of the Sylph with the Company, taught the dancers the woodland scenes of Act II. "I'm doing everything in plaid and Tammy is doing everything in white," Gribler joked.
Kaiser, who covered a bit of everything, played Gurn during his dancing days. "We did this ballet a lot," he recalled. "We performed it at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] and we filmed it for PBS as well. I think it's a great ballet because it deals with a theme we keep coming back to, which is human emotion. James is dealing with temptation for the unknown, for the dangerous. And that's compelling."
The Bournonville style of choreography is classical, yet distinctly understated. Jumps must be rapid and strong, while the arms must be soft and held low. "As a dancer, I have a deep appreciation for the Bournonville style, with its quick footwork," said Kaiser. "There's a purity to the simplicity of the port-de-bras (placement of the arms) and epaulement (positioning of the head) that make it very appealing."
Dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet are taught Bournonville's ballets from childhood. For American dancers, mastering the style can be a challenge. "It's something dancers really need to focus on and be schooled in," said Kaiser. "There is a lot of jumping, not just for James but for the sylph, too. She's trying to depict this ethereal quality, and that adds another dimension to the jumping. But American dancers in general, today, are used to taking on different styles."
Gribler agrees that La Sylphide is an endurance test for its female lead. "Bournonville is hardest for the women," he said. "It's such controlled dancing, yet it needs to be soft and buoyant. Not that the male roles in this ballet aren't demanding as well!"
While most duets from the classical repertoire involve demanding lifts, Bournonville's does not. "The pas de deux in Act II is unusual, because of the fact that there are no lifts," remarked Gribler. "As a matter of fact, there is not a lift in the ballet, even for the 'plaid' people."
The rich characters of La Sylphide include Effie, James' innocent bride, and Madge, the old witch who appears on their wedding day to warn James that he will betray his fianc_e. Headstrong James gets angry and sends the witch away: not a smart move for him. She works her magic, to his considerable detriment.
The setting of La Sylphide is from another century, but the theme is timeless. "We still relate to stories like this on an emotional level," said Kaiser. "These are characters we can all identify with in some way."
The dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet have earned a reputation over the past 45 years for their mastery of different styles and, especially, their ability to convey a dramatic story. Kaiser is confident that the current production of La Sylphide will show them to best advantage.
"I throw a lot of things at them," he said. "This is one more challenge that I'm sure they'll embrace."
Pennsylvania Ballet will perform La Sylphide through June 13 in a program that also includes the company premiere of the Barber Violin Concerto, choreographed by Peter Martins.
For tickets and information, visit Pennsylvania Ballet.
Anne Levin Benedict was the dance critic for The Trenton Times for 20 years and currently freelances for several publications.