La Sylphide (Lacotte/Taglioni)
Flemming Ryberg, Interview, 1994
And it's not the steps, which are telling anything. You just have to do them, because it's ballet. But in fact, you could stand still, and tell the whole story. (…) when you are dancing a role, you have to forget about the steps, you have to make the audience forget about the steps, because it's not that, where there is the point. The point is, to tell the story. To tell them something completely different, than steps, or technique.
(…) "Bournonville is about beauty and love. If you love your work, if you know what love of the work is, love of the music, love of what you have to tell the audience, that is it."
Lis Jeppesen, Interview, 1988
Now, in the Danish Theatre until very recent decades, people were used to be appointed "solo dancer" -étoile - at the END of their career. It was a homage paid by the Royal Theatre and by the Danish people, to men and women who in service to the art form, had gone well beyond the call of duty.
To tell the truth, last night I was bored - politely bored, but bored nonetheless.
Don't get me wrong - I've got nothing against Matthew Ganio. He seems a sweet-natured, kindly boy. He works hard, and he's quite a nice dancer.
But, no, Matthew Ganio is not a genius, this is not Gardel, Nikolai Legat and Poul Gnatt all rolled up into one tidy parcel, and in the boy's own interest, we should all cool it, pronto. He is too young for such roles, and too young to be Adored. As a noted pianist has just put it, in a recent interview on teenie-boppers who insist upon playing Beethoven's last sonatas,"Mich interessiert nicht, wie Kinder philosophieren".
Although Management is, to be sure, human, and as such, is perfectly entitled to be besotted with X, Y or Z and to favour them in casting (and were I running a Theatre, I should no doubt besottedly favour some as well), at the end of the day, the classical dance is an objective art form. Otherwise, let's rustle up a party, and turn the Opéra Garnier into an Opium Den.
We are dancing for the public, we are dancing to educate, enlighten and improve the public, not to settle internal disputes or create TV personalities. The public must be given to reflect on the BEST we've got in this theatre. Which begs the question, where IS our Prince ?
Be that as it may, and always one to plan a century or so ahead, Schumann doubtless penned his rhapsodic Ebro Caudaloso prefiguring the gentleman's late Iberian adventure, but the question remains nevertheless, Where IS Emmanuel Thibault ? Musing amongst the rocks at Pontevedra ? Bring that man back next week after his stint inRubies at Madrid, and let him to dance James !
Whither the thingimajiggies ?
BEG BORROW OR STEAL a ticket to see the woman, because this sort of technique don't grow on trees.
This writer has seen a number of celebrated Sylphs, but - so far - only two remain with me: Lis Jeppesen, and Elisabeth Maurin. The Dane, Lis Jeppesen, was a half-smiling figurine of a divinity come to life, alighting from some place in the universe where ideas are formed. Tears spring to the eyes at the thought of it, and it was twenty years ago. And that devilish spirit of contradiction Mlle. Maurin, spurring men on to do and dare, her adorable blue eye darting sparks, like fireflies into the night.
Mlle. Dupont may not be there yet, but she has potential, and a capacity for work very rare in the world today. Let us all take the time to ponder over the quality of abstraction, the depth and sheer intensity of work, that yields the technical accomplishments we saw last night. And her originality ! The French stage is NOT one, at the present time, where mezzo-tint dancing is esteemed. As Mlle. Dupont has herself stated, we are in a Theatre where every movement, every articulation is ground to an extreme. But, amongst the many beauties in her work last night, notably a careful eschewal of excessively large, gaping figures, she has dared to dance the very rapid passages as one would have done in the 19th century, as a TRAJECTORY, skimming over the ground with the torso engaged, and the foot and leg almost relaxed.
What Mlle. Dupont did here, is the precise equivalent of declaiming a passage in Sheakespeare meant to be taken very quickly, without ever losing the metric structure of the discreet foot (in dancing, this would correspond to the steps), though letting that wiry metric fade into the background. This prevents the parsing from taking over to become an asinine sing-song.
Was it, however, poetry ? Question.
That is why, with the reader's permission, there appear the two lengthy quotes from our Danish colleagues, above.
Or, what is the whole play about ?
We have two versions of the Sylphide in the world's repertoire today. One, by Auguste Bournonville to a score by Loevenskjold, dating from about 1836, and that he worked on throughout his life until his death in 1879. It is thus, in a way, his artistic testament.
Contrary to what you will read in the newspapers, Bournonville's Sylphide is a salvo of artillery fire against the Romantics' egomaniac world outlook, from precisely the same standpoint as Heinrich Heine.
And it is barely one hour long, amongst the most highly-focused and intense poetic statements ever composed.
Fear of the Bratkartoffel ?
The story-line could not be simpler: On the eve of his wedding, James, a young laird, dreading the Bratkartoffel mediocrity of married life, sits alone and dreams on before the fire. A vision appears to him, the Sylph. What can it be ? As he springs towards her, she vanishes up the chimney. The Scene changes, and villagers press in to see him wed. Oppressed by dreams, unsettled by a travelling Witch or Soothsayer, James cannot focus in the Here and Now upon Effie his bride. In the midst of the rejoicings, the Sylph appears to pluck the betrothal ring from James' finger, and breathes in his ear - Follow me ! He tears from Effie, leaving her with his rival Gurn, to follow after the Sylph into the forest.
In the forest of the Unknown, the Sylph appears only to vanish here, there and everywhere, one amongst many. In his endeavour to possess the creature that is no creature, James "sells his soul" to the Witch that he has spurned in Act I, for a scarf to bind the Sylph to him. The Sylph is quite willing to play with the scarf, to float it upon the air, to frolic with it, but the moment James attempts to bind her, her wings fall, and she dies. The ballet ends with Effie, Gurn and a throng of villagers celebrating the couple's wedding in the glen.
But the storyline, is not the idea.
Put very roughly, the idea behind Bournonville's Sylph, is this. The Sylph is a metaphor for pure creativity. A substance without substance, but innate in the mind. Though it take a thousand forms, the spark ever remains, never to be grasped in the flesh. The moment James shuns reality, and "flees out into the forest" of romantic Unreason, seeking to possess that carefree, playful spirit of pure mind as though it were a material and carnal being, the spirit withers and slips away.
Unfortunately, Bournonville's Sylphide is never danced in France.
The version held at the French National Theatre is that of Pierre Lacotte, which he reconstructed in 1973 on the basis of the Schneitzhoeffer score and Filippo Taglioni's manuscripts in the Theatre library.
The Lacotte/Taglioni version is extremely problematic. Its score is, first and foremost, far too long. The ballet is well over twice as long as the Bournonville version. And it has less to say. The thing Ging Lost in an orgy of line dancing, diagonal dancing, trios, soli, pas de deux, people climbing all over each other here there and everywhere…And the Scots dancers on pointe, amongst other puzzling events of that ilk.
As for the philosophical point, well, it lies buried under kilometres of plaid, tulle and gauze.
There are too many steps. Allow me to state this for the Umpteenth time: dancing is supposed to be FUN. Not only for the public, but, believe it or not, for the dancers ! Could we PLEASE stop piling on the difficulties ? It is far, far more important for the dancer to be able to focus on what's happening in the orchestra pit, than to cram in three more steps for each bar of music.
Now, M. Lacotte will undoubtedly object that "it's all in the manuscript". Well, maybe t'is, and maybe t'aint.
What I mean is the following.
Mummy, how do I look in this ?
So, compared to today's tempi, they'd literally be tearing through their variations, more or less at the tempi indicated by the composer (a trifling detail, nowaydays) and the conductor would be there cheering 'em on ! Incidentally, with the old tempi, we stood more of a chance at keeping a ballet-orchestra awake, but, as our American friends would say, We don't go There Today.
Anyway, what M. Lacotte has tried to do, is to reconcile our own Martinet-like obsession with getting those legs up, and with Mechanical Perfection, to steps written down at a time when the classical dance was an explosion of joy and untrammelled musicality.
Ride'em cowgirl !
In his ballet, pointe-work belongs to the Sylphs. Bournonville has the Scots women in shoes or soft slippers, never pointes. He recorded the national dances of every nation he visited, and used them very effectively elsewhere too (Cf. Knud Arne Juergensen's "Photographic Record" of his ballets, with photographs that go back as far as 1841).
The Scotsmen in their dances push and press INTO the ground, whereas, the Sylphs press OFF the ground. In Bournonville's Act I, the Sylph flits, unreal amongst the revellers in the Scots reel. Grimly comic, however, is Lacotte's pas de trois, with the Sylph hitching up her skirts to clamber up onto James back. RIDE'EM Cowgirl !
By turning the Scots dances into a whirl of balletic tours de force, M. Lacotte has muddied their purpose. And what to say of the kilt-clad men, high-kicking like male chorus girls ? Radio City Music Hall, here's novelty for you !
A telling instance of how casually the Lacotte version deals with mime and dramaturgy, is the "unimportant" scene where the bride Effie is given flowers.
Flowers in those parts, were (and still are) rare and costly, even for a laird. But, bearing outsize bouquets, the girls stomp up to Effie, performing the self-same gesture at the self-same beat on the music, to thrust the flowers at Effie as though they'd just been bought at Boots the Chemists.
Worse still, the Abandonment scene. This is the year 1804, or thereabouts, in the dark Highlands. Neither the man, nor especially the woman, would live much beyond the age of forty. Marriage was deadly serious, and no going back.
Should a girl's engagement be broken, she would likely be spurned as shop-soiled goods by every man in the village. When James flees out into the forest, Effie's reputation and thus her life, may well be ruined. She, and her mother, collapse in rage, grief and despair, while the villagers are scarcely less dismayed.
In the Paris version, Effie looks round the stage as though missing her beau at a cocktail-dînatoire. She tosses a glance out the portal, sees He has Gone, and petulantly casts down her bouquet in a pretty little fit - has someone just spilt wine on her party frock ? - only to be consoled by Mumsy in thirty seconds flat.
Put another way, this Sylphide can be salvaged, but it will take some heavy pruning.