ENB’s La Sylphide resembles a lock-in at a Royal Mile souvenir shop

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

Gurn loves Effy, Effy is engaged to James but James is away with the fairies: a recipe for love tragedy.

Tamara Rojo’s English National Ballet hasn’t danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide since 1989 (before most of today’s dancers were born or thought of). The easy elevation and unshowy brilliance of the Danish style do not come naturally to them but their accents have improved since the dispiriting première in Milton Keynes last October. The character ensembles look perkier although the garish tartan choices make poor Effy’s big, fat Highland wedding look like a lock-in at a Royal Mile souvenir shop.

The sylph’s 18 sisters were unfailingly tidy but the sense of otherworldly lightness was missing. Weird women in white are a cornerstone of the romantic and classical repertoires. All serve a broadly similar purpose: a chance for choreographers to amplify themes and demonstrate the sheer magic of repetition and replication. But they aren’t all cut from the same length of tulle; Bournonville’s sylph is not just Odette in a longer frock.

I saw four sylphs. All offered pretty footwork and brisk jumps but, smile and bounce as they might, none had the measure of this childlike, alien creature. The Jameses had been well coached. Isaac Hernández and recent Birmingham signing Joseph Caley relished the flurries of beaten steps and lilting leaps, but the lordly Aitor Arrieta was the only one to give any sense of the Weltschmerz and self-absorption that could drive a bridegroom to run away and play kiss-chase in the woods.

The chief problems lie with the staging by Frank Andersen and Eva Kloborg which, despite its impeccable pedigree, lacks the dramatic force of Johan Kobborg’s 2005 Royal Ballet version. The characters are underwritten, the storytelling seems rushed and arbitrary and key scenes are undersold.

James’s untouchable fairy bride makes conventional pairwork impossible but the no-contact rule creates an extraordinary sexual tension. Sadly, these fruity possibilities are never given space to develop. Without this all-important build-up, the tragic moment when James wraps the sylph in the fatal scarf and embraces his lifeless prize falls oddly flat, with only the score’s chilling shift to E minor letting us know how sad we should be.

That said, this run of Sylphide has not been the orchestra’s finest hour. Herman Lovenskiold’s pretty tunes are essentially illustrative but they deserve a lighter touch than Gavin Sutherland supplies. The overture — a scrumptious trailer for the delights to come — drags horribly and there were times when the brass section seemed to have swapped instruments for a bet.

At only 75 minutes (with interval) La Sylphide was generously programmed with a choice of one-act makeweights: a strong reading of Song of the Earth — a meaty leftover from last year’s Kenneth MacMillan celebrations — and Roland Petit’s 18-minute duet Le Jeune Homme et la Mort danced to Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

Jean Cocteau’s scenario, an expressionist apache dance between an angsty young artist and his nemesis, now comes with idiotic trigger warnings on the doors tellingof ‘adult themes’ and giving away the punchline.

Tamara Rojo has fielded four casts. Springy Isaac Hernández was a very jeune homme indeed, easily dominated by the wickedly lovely Begoña Cao. Twenty-one-year-old Cesar Corrales made a strong debut on Thursday afternoon, his penultimate performance before his transfer to Covent Garden. The cheers from the fan club were well deserved — his sudden, slippery pirouette on the tabletop make me catch my breath. Jia Zhang was a divine dominatrix. Her leg ticks to six o’clock with suggestive force and she made deliciously dirty work of the frottage sequence as she buffed her satin toe against his denim crotch.

The piece is very much of its period (Paris, 1946) but it remains the juiciest of star vehicles. Petit created it for Jean Babilée and the role has become associated with dancers — Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nicolas Le Riche — who share his eerie, Rolls-Royce-y ability to power through the acrobatics with no apparent effort.

Ivan Vasiliev is of a different order but the Bolshoi-bred star gave an electrifying performance, partnered by an implacable Rojo. Looking trim and fit, he balanced nervelessly on the rim of the upturned table and hurtled through space, body parallel to the floor, fuelled by existential torment, kept afloat by an adoring crowd.

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