Historic Ballet La Sylphide Is Intriguing But Not Exceptional

La Sylphide ★★★☆☆

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 26 months ago
Historic Ballet La Sylphide Is Intriguing But Not Exceptional La Sylphide 3

If “age before beauty” is still a thing in this town, the ticket queue for the historic La Sylphide should stretch out of the ENO foyer and down the road. It doesn’t and for good reasons.

First staged in Paris in 1832, this ballet is one of the world’s oldest surviving examples of this art form and caused quite the commotion on its first outing. The version presented here by Australia’s Queensland Ballet is choreographed by Peter Schaufuss; his vision largely relies on this work’s most famous arrangement in 1836 by his compatriot, the great Dane August Bournonville.

Set in Scotland, it revolves around young James, his betrothed Effie and a sylph who captures his heart on the morning of his wedding day. James's pursuit of the supernatural creature through a forest eventually leads to despair and death, but not before Effie turns her affections to James's less capricious rival Gurn. Good for her.

Schaufuss is joined in this production by his young son Luke who takes on the lead role of James; Schaufuss fils has already been picked out as one of the rising stars of 2015. The classic Danish style of springy leaps and fast, exuberant footwork is present and correct as are signs of the period in which La Sylphide was written.

This ballet’s opening night has earned its page in history. In the early 19th century, en pointe dancing was all the vogue. It all started in 1795 when the invention of Charles Didelot’s “flying machine” saw dancers being lifted up on wires; released from the restrictions of gravity, the choreography became lighter than a successful soufflé to much public acclaim. It was over 30 years later, though, before unsupported en pointe dancing became de rigeur with Marie Taglioni credited as being the first to dance in this style, most famously in the 1832 premiere of La Sylphide when she danced her entire role en pointe.

Based on traditional Scottish dances, this ballet’s wedding party sequences are rambunctious affairs with plot points woven into these mesmerising ensemble numbers. Those who care about such things may like to know that the gentlemen here do not wear their kilts in the traditional manner.

In general, the company’s expressions — both facial and physical — leave much to be desired. The plot may not be complex but the cast still fail to effectively convey its nuances; audience members trying to follow La Sylphide’s twists and turns are as likely to drive off into the ether. The dancing is a touch flat-footed from some of the leads before the single interval but picks up sharply after. Whether this was a result of some blunt dressing room critique at halftime or a change of shoes is unknown.

The ballet is dramatically a poor cousin to its contemporaries and doesn’t stand out from the crowd. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve to, given its illustrious cohorts. The Danish dancing style is a stylish wonder to watch when done well and the physical performances here are about par given the youthful nature of this company. Together, the net effect is an intriguing but not exceptional production.

La Sylphide continues at the ENO, St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4ES. until 8 August. Tickets £5-£85. Londonist attended on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 09 August 2015