Classic tale of impossible love is still sprightly at 200 years young.
Playhouse Theatre, QPAC
March 26, 2015
The oldest Romantic ballet to be continuously performed since its premiere in the early nineteenth century, La Sylphide is a tragic tale of impossible love. When the Scotsman James awakes on his wedding day to find a winged sylph at his side, he falls in love with her – abandoning his fiancée and family, he chases the elusive creature through the forest, but must eventually pay the price for trying to possess the unattainable.
This year marks 200 years since the birth of La Sylphide’s composer, Herman Severin von Løvenskjold, who composed it in less than 6 months at the age of twenty-one. The memorable score was beautifully performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, skilfully conducted by Music Director Andrew Morgelia.
Peter Schaufuss’ choreography after August Bournonville has earned an Olivier and Evening Standard Award, and is praised by Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director Li Cunxin as “the best La Sylphide in the world”. Fast-paced, exact footwork, intense allegro and dramatic pantomime combine to imitate the style of August Bournonville’s early productions. Schaufuss also has a family history with La Sylphide stretching back almost a century. His parents performed in the ballet and he has staged and performed in it himself multiple times. Now, his own children join the Queensland Ballet company onstage in Brisbane. The Queensland Ballet will also be touring to London with the ballet in August, where Peter staged his first production of La Sylphide in 1979.
Sets and costuming by the late David Walker displayed a stunning attention to detail. The Scottish manor house in which the first act is set came alive with grand chandeliers and a huge fireplace. Clever layering of the sets allowed them to interweave with the dance, rather than merely standing as a backdrop – the Sylph disappears up the chimney early in the first act, and later returns through a window, dancing daintily over piles of books and luring James out into the forest. The forest itself was a masterpiece – tree-based sets often feel very two-dimensional and are compensated for by effects such as smoke-machine mist, but the second act was played out amongst a deep, sunlit forest. This was due in no small part to Steen Bjarke’s innovative lighting design – lights were not only used to create mood and set the scene, but to interact directly with the set to make it come alive – the fireplace was lit in a way that gave the impression of real, flickering flames and the water in the sylph’s forest seemed to fall silently into its pool with lights glittering off it.
Guest artist Qi Huan was a privilege to watch in the role of James. His exquisite technique, exceptional allegro work and genuine, believable character set him apart from the rest of the ensemble, as did his flawless execution of the fast-paced choreography. His impeccable footwork was most notable in the Act 2 pas de deux between James and the sylph.
The role of the sylph was danced by Yanela Pinera, a new addition to the Queensland Ballet company in 2015 from the National Ballet of Cuba. When Filippo Taglioni choreographed the first La Sylphide to include pointe work as an aesthetic, rather than an acrobatic trick, it was for the few dancers with the elegance of movement that his daughter possessed. Pinera is undoubtedly one of these. Believably otherworldly, she floated across the stage with grace, poise and perfect technique – every movement was breathtakingly smooth and seemingly effortless.
The chemistry and emotion between the two lead characters was palpable, especially in the final scene as the sylph, blinded and with her wings fallen to the ground, professes her love one last time before being carried away by her sisters. Consistency and authenticity of character was also strong among the company, although synchronicity was occasionally lacking in the large group pieces.
Sarah Thompson was a commendable character in the role of Effie, James’ broken-hearted fiancée and Mary Li held a commanding stage presence as Madge, the witch who orchestrates the downfall of James and his sylph. Rian Thompson, Alexander Idaszak, Emilio Pavan and Nathan Brook provided comic relief as Madge’s witch companions.
Through a combination of dance and drama the Queensland Ballet succeeds in transporting their audience into the ethereal world of La Sylphide with their entrancing performance of the classic tale.
The Queensland Ballet will be performing La Sylphide will be playing at QPAC, Brisbane from March 20-31, and at the Coliseum Theatre, London from August 4-8.