Bournonville’s La Sylphide, now returned to the Royal Opera House in Johan Kobborg’s production, is the only choreography extant to tell us something valid about ballet in the first flowering of Romanticism, and this through continuity of performance. Treasured in Copenhagen from its staging there in 1836, preserved in the amber of Bournonville’s dance manner, it enshrines those intoxications of spirit that marked the early outpourings of the Romantic soul. The sylphide is a creature of male fantasy; James is obsessed by this vision of unattainable femininity, and is destroyed by his need to possess her. Here is a drama of wild feeling set against the pretty fantasy of balletic Highlands and the quaintnesses of kilt and bonnet and witchcraft.
All this Bournonville – and the sensitive Kobborg – show. Kobborg has edited (revising Bournonville is a national sport among Danish danseurs) and there results a staging that I think is now the best in the world. It was danced with the most delicious charm by Tamara Rojo at its revival on Monday, everything sensitively phrased, the sylph’s vagaries of affection having emotional weight despite the airiness of Rojo’s playing. Federico Bonelli showed James with bright, clear dancing, and his sorrow as the sylph dies was handsomely true: he might with good cause bring such fervour to the earlier scenes. Gary Avis was a dominating Madge, suggesting something ambiguous about the witch, compounded of malice and unease; Laura Morera tore at our sympathies as Effie, James’s abandoned love. The throng of crofters and the legion of the sylphs were fine in all things.
La Sylphide has a welcome companion on stage – either a new Napoli divertissement or the revival of Ashton’s Rhapsody. On Monday, Rhapsody was gloriously danced by Leanne Benjamin (unfailing musicality, brilliancy of step, a cascading pas de bourrée like beautifully matched pearls) and by Carlos Acosta with tremendous bravura (too tremendous for my taste: Baryshnikov, for whom the role was made, was lighter, less blatant, wittier in effects).
It is a wonderful ballet, but someone must banish the ghastly backdrop projections of a deep depression over Bodmin – and over the ballet – and shorten the women’s skirts which are, so clever, exactly the wrong length. Ashton, most stylish of choreographers, is made dowdy. ★★★★★
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