Monday, February 29, 2016

A New Kind of Sylph

Gregory Dean in Hübbe's La Sylphide
The Danish Royal Theater in Copenhagen has staged what is (to my knowledge) one of the first and only attempts at Regietheater ballet. For decades, opera companies have been staging canonical operas in unusual places and time periods, with sets and costumes and movement that emphasize some theme rather than the plot. Ballet companies, however, have avoided the practice. Depending on who you ask, that’s either because ballet doesn’t suffer from opera’s contemporary repertoire problems or because ballet audiences crave the traditional productions they already know and love.

So when I heard that the Royal Danish Ballet had a Regie version of La Sylphide, I was intrigued (the production premiered over a year ago, but this was my first chance to see it). I can understand why they’re interested: this is the Danish theater’s most canonical ballet; they have to perform it about as constantly as other theaters perform The Nutcracker. And, moreover, northern Europe is the epicenter of Regie opera productions - the other Regie ballet that I know of is Munich's Illusionen nach Schwanensee. But I didn’t know how it would work out. Would the director be able to say anything new about the ballet when his hands are essentially tied to the steps laid out in August Bournonville’s text?

The answer is a resounding yes.

 
Nikolaj Hübbe's production of La Sylphide crackles with dramatic intensity. Bente Lykke Møller has designed extraordinarily stark sets, inspired by a combination of 17th-century Calvinist interiors (think, get rid of those pictures you heathen, don’t you know they’re sending us all to hell!) and modernist Scandinavian design (you don’t have to go far in Copenhagen to see that nearly everything is decorated in chic shades of black, gray, and white). The first act, normally set indoors in the Scottish highlands, is in a dark gray interior with little furniture. The setting demonstrates the harshness of James’s everyday life: the strict piety in which he and his fiancée seem to live may harken back to puritanical ideals, but they also remind us that life is full of suffering, and that an escape to a supernatural haven might not be as crazy or as caddish as most productions of La Sylphide suggest. The second act is even starker - just three blindingly white walls, illuminated so sharply by Ulrik Gad’s lighting that it seems to glow. This otherworldly staging suggests that James has already partially escaped into the afterlife.

Hübbe has made only the slightest changes to the action, but those changes resonate powerfully. The window through which the Sylph enters James’s house, for example, has been moved from the side of the set to the back. When the Sylph opens the window, a heavenly light floods in through the back. It recalls so many movies in which the ghost, fairy, or vampire arrives in a burst of light. The Sylph is not just a cute pixie come to seduce the main character; she is fundamentally unnatural, and her appeal is her inhumanness. Amy Watson does well to give the Sylph a sense of real human flirtation while keeping her strange and uncanny. Her acting is convincing, particularly in the Sylph’s death scene. Though I was not satisfied with her jumps - her upper body seems uncomfortably rigid, as though braced for impact - I did appreciate the subtlety of her extensions. She keeps her leg lifts low throughout, so that when, in her second act solo, she finally lifts her foot over her shoulder, it has a real impact.


Nikolaj Hübbe as Madge (I tried to find a picture of Haynes in the role but couldn't)
Gregory Dean as James is the true star and force of this production. His dancing alone is stupendous; he flies through Bournonville’s solos with both power and grace. When he strikes one of the final accents at the end of a long phrase (usually in back attitude) he drags his arms through their arcs into the next position, like a violinist sustaining a long note on the way into the next phrase. There is an ideal balance of lightness and weight to his dancing. His acting was also compelling. In this production, James is not some idle cad, but rather a young man genuinely torn between two worlds. In the Scottish reel, James shows himself both drawn to his fellow dancers within and drawn outside to Madge and the Sylph. Effie is hurt by James’s inattention, and James’s fellow dancers drag him around the circles in a human echo of the uncanny metaphysical power that Madge and the Sylph have on James’s body.

The biggest change to the ballet is that the witch Madge, usually played by a man in drag, is here played by a man as a man (on my night, an imposing Sebastian Haynes). Making Madge into a well-dressed man rather than a crone gives some dignity to the character and sets him up as a real foil to the Sylph. It also allows removes some of the potential undercurrent of sexism in the ballet that can exist when masculine-looking women are equated with evil. At the same time, the production seems to have just replaced this with a story about the dangers of homosexual desire. In the closing moments of the ballet, as James lies on the ground with everything stripped from him, Madge kisses him. According to the program notes, this production is supposed to make us understand James’s death wish. I agree that the entire rest of the staging did just that - James undermines everything good in his life while constantly seeking something otherworldly. Sounds like a death wish to me. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t James kiss Madge? The final kiss instead seems to suggest that Death has a James-wish, which makes no sense at all.

I have a hard time though, judging such a gorgeous and powerful production on that one misstep. I’ve rarely had such an intensely dramatic experience at the ballet, and my gratitude goes out to Hübbe and his collaborators for the evening. I could go on - about the beautiful staging of the glade scene in the second act, Kizzy Matiakis’s nimble dancing as Effie, or Alexander Bozinoff’s selfish yet endearing Gurn - but there’s not enough time or space. I will, however, end with a mention of the Danish Royal Theater’s lush orchestra, led by Geoffrey Styles. Their playing was precise and joyful, lyrical and ominous in turns. The vibrant acoustic in the Royal Theater added to the sense of immersion. Bravo, all around.


La Sylphide at Danish Royal Theater. February 23, 2016. Music: H. S. Løvenskjold; Choreography: Nikolaj Hübbe after August Bournonville; Set and costume design:
Bente Lykke Møller; James: Geoffrey Dean; Sylph: Amy Watson; Madge: Sebastian Haynes.

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