This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
Atlanta Ballet opens its 2023-24 season this weekend with “La Sylphide,” which the company last performed in 2019.
While “La Sylphide,” choreographed by August Bournonville in 1836, bears a superficial visual resemblance to “Giselle,” another Romantic-era ballet presented during Atlanta Ballet’s 2021-22 season, artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin succinctly summarized their substantial differences during a recent interview with ArtsATL.
“Even though the costumes for the sylphs and the Wilis (from Act II of “Giselle”) look very alike,” Nedvigin said, the difference ends there. (Wilis are the ghosts of young women who, betrayed by faithless lovers, have died of grief.)
“They are dead women,” Nedvigin said, “while the sylphs in ‘La Sylphide’ are fairies that fly. They are living, joyful creatures.” And although not everything ends happily in this ballet, “that joy is what we see in Act II when they’re dancing together.”
Atlanta Ballet invited ArtsATL to observe the company rehearsing the exuberant reel in Act I. The emotional turmoil of the plot percolated beneath the surface and at the margins of a cheerful, idyllic portrayal of village life in 19th century Scotland. The rehearsal was a snapshot of how “La Sylphide” showcases Bournonville’s characteristic style, which blends energetic dance — full of lightning-quick footwork and buoyant grand and petit allegro — with naturalistic physical acting and relatively subtle pantomime.
Credit: Charlie McCullers
Credit: Charlie McCullers
For Friday’s opening night performance, Patric Palkens was scheduled to dance the role of James Ruben, who becomes obsessed with The Sylph after glimpsing her briefly when her kiss rouses him from sleep. (Editor’s note: Palkens was forced to withdraw this week due to a toe injury. Dancer Denys Nedak is now set to play James on opening night.)
Palkens described some of the challenges “La Sylphide” presents for dancers.
“I come from a background in acting as well as dance,” he said, “and you can’t hold your character at arm’s length. I have to spend a lot of time sitting with the guilt and suffering James feels.”
Because his character’s emotional journey is reflected in the acting, rather than the technical elements of Bournonville’s dance steps, Palkens said, there are moments of pure ballet where he can take a break from that emotional weight. Nonetheless, he said, “the difficulty occurs, when I’m coming off of those dynamic variations with a runner’s high. The rug gets yanked out from under me because I have to return to dealing emotionally with the consequences of the choices my character has made.”
The narrative explication in “La Sylphide” relies only lightly on familiar ballet pantomime like the overhead swirl of arms — the universal ballet gesture for “now let’s dance” — or the exaggerated pointing to one’s left ring finger signaling marriage or engagement, and other equally choreographed, if less familiar, gestures such as Madge the village witch’s invitation, in a pivotal scene, to read people’s palms.
Johan Kobborg, the former Royal Danish Ballet principal dancer and Bournonville repetiteur who is again working with the company on “La Sylphide,” invited the dancers to create individual characters through less-stylized physical movements and facial expressions, explained dancer Juliana Missano.
“Of course, Johan wants to keep the Bournonville tradition alive,” she said about Kobborg’s direction of the sylphs, “but he also really values personality. So he encourages us to channel that feeling you get when you see a beautiful man walk down the street. How would that fill your body? He really wants each sylph to have her own story and for that story to come across in our movement and expression.”
Missano will dance the role of Effie, the village beauty and James’ betrothed, for the first time in the Saturday matinee and will be in the corps de ballet as a sylph in other performances.
During rehearsal, Kobborg struck a delicate balance. He began by encouraging the dancers to find their own gestures based on his cues about the action. As Gurn, friend of James and Effie, turned first to one woman and then another seeking a dance partner, Kobborg said: “No, you don’t want to dance with him. And no, not you either, or you.”
When necessary, he reminded them of how small differences could affect the audience’s interpretation.
“It’s sadder, isn’t it, when she turns him down, than when you step in front of her and say ‘hands off, she’s mine,’” Kobborg said to one couple. Their repeated refusals raise the question of whether the young women of the village know something about Gurn that the audience does not. Is he a nice guy getting pushed out of the picture by his more aggressive male peers, or is he the village creep?
The costumes in this production dazzle with the vibrant colors of Scottish tartans in the village scenes while clouds of white tulle and delicate wildflowers adorn the graceful sylphs. The interior sets abound with rich architectural detail, and the woodland backdrops are lush with verdant foliage.
H.S. Løvenskiold’s score will be performed live by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra.
The audience on Saturday evening will have the rare delight of seeing Kobborg, a world-famous interpreter of Bournonville, in the wickedly fun role of Madge.
Like Act I’s famous Bournonville reel, the plot in “La Sylphide” has twists and turns. The ballet is a tragicomedy, with moments of humor as well as pathos. For almost 200 years, it has enticed audiences and dancers with its dark romanticism and brilliant, athletic technique, ensuring its continuation in the bodies and minds of each successive generation that experiences it.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $26-$149. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-892-3303, atlantaballet.com.
Robin Wharton studied dance at the School of American Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. As an undergraduate at Tulane University in New Orleans, she was a member of the Newcomb Dance Company. In addition to a bachelor of arts in English from Tulane, Robin holds a law degree and a Ph.D. in English, both from the University of Georgia.
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