La Sylphide is often described as ‘the first Romantic ballet’ because it paved the way for a string of nineteenth century works, Giselle included, that focus on the supernatural. Loosely based on Charles Nodier’s Scottish Gothic story Trilby, or the Goblin of Argail, the piece describes how one man’s infatuation with a sylph – or spirit – causes him to reject everything he has in pursuit of an unachievable ideal.
In August Bournonville’s 1836 version, performed here with additional choreography from Johan Kobborg, the on-going encounters between the main protagonist, James (Steven McRae), and the object of his obsession (Alina Cojocaru) explore the emotional depths of both characters. McRae utilises a clean and precise underlying technique to convey a range of psychological states. As he dances with his fiancée Effie – whom he is soon to reject – his mind and soul genuinely appear to be elsewhere, although he has not entirely withdrawn from society yet. Over the course of the dance he warms slightly to the task, and reacts abruptly at any sign that another man might be interested in his future wife.
As the Sylph, Cojocaru is an enticing presence with an incredible fluidity of movement. At times pulses of energy seem to run through her entire body and she puts her whole self into expressing the character’s alluring nature.
Interaction between the two dancers is central to the piece’s power. Ironically, James comes across as a deeper and more intriguing character when appearing uneasy and distant in his societal surroundings, than when he is actually faced with the fantasy and hence overwhelmed with desire. Every now and then Herman Løvenskiold’s music enters a lighter mode and there are times when the Sylph’s movements almost parody the character’s nature. Cojacaru executes these steps with style, but James is left looking like a love sick puppy vainly chasing after her. The Act Two pas de deux is also revealing in regards to the dynamics of their relationship: he feels so near and yet so far from his goal, and she in turn moves strangely close to him, without ever quite touching.
Emma Maguire is warm and likeable as Effie, while Valentino Zucchetti as Gurn – who marries her when James flees – has an exemplary lightness of touch. Although the narrative seems to frown upon those who lack the impulse and imagination to move beyond the narrow confines of society, it is hard not to feel pleased that, at least on some level, things have worked out for these characters. Kristen McNally, as the witch-like Madge is a spiky, powerful presence with strong, malevolent gestures. While she delights, however, in showing James the Sylph’s dead body, her look after he has collapsed is one of remorse.
In this programme, the two act ballet is preceded by George Balanchine’s twenty minute-long Ballo della regina of 1978. Set to music from Verdi’s Don Carlos, it has not always been well received, and were it to be performed by any lesser a cast, the accusation that it is slight and fanciful might hold. In the hands of these dancers, headed by Marianela Núñez and Nehemiah Kish, however, the complexities come fully to the fore. At one end of the spectrum, the sheer lightness of the corps de ballet elevates the experience; at the other, the performers’ precision injects the type of detail into movements that, if any less well executed, might have appeared slight and ill-judged. Ballo della regina was only performed by the Royal Ballet for the first time last year, and the fact that it is already being revived to complement a classic work speaks of its strength.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.