This weekend brings Louisville balletomanes the opportunity to see the Louisville Ballet’s production of Danish choreographer Auguste Bournonville’s 1836 Romantic ballet “La Sylphide.” This is only the second time that the full ballet has been produced under artistic director Bruce Simpson’s tenure, although the fall 2012 Studio Connections program included a cutting from Act Two, programming that suggested that the company was ready once more to essay this epitome of Romantic ballet in full.
“La Sylphide” opened Friday evening in the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. A matinee (2 p.m.) and an evening performance (8 p.m.) tonight round out the run.
“La Sylphide” is a good vehicle for the cohesive ensemble that currently is the Louisville Ballet. Together with last season’s opener “The Lady of the Camellias” (another Romantic story, but retold by a contemporary choreographer), “La Sylphide” demonstrates that one of this company’s strengths is their capacity to tell good stories and create fully-realized characters within strong choreographic traditions.
Friday’s opening performance featured Erica De La O and Kristopher Wojtera in the title role and as James respectively (roles danced by Natalia Ashikhmina and Phillip Velinov later in the weekend). The Sylph is a role which suits De La O’s strengths. Her long and lissome arms create the other-worldly aspect of the Sylph and her footwork is neat and precise in the intricate choreography of the Bournonville style, which requires few extended arabesques, a convention that can wobble slightly in De La O’s work. Wojtera seems equally at home in this world of clean, precise choreographic style. He brings a clean-cut believability to the first act’s “real” world — the echoed moment when he awakes, first to the Sylph and then to his fiancée Effie (Leigh Anne Albrechta/Christy Corbitt Miller) was delightfully specific in its sense of déjà vu — before gradually falling into desire and desperation under the influence of Madge (Helen Daigle) the witch.
In this production, Daigle appears in an unrecognizable guise, embodying Madge’s fury and guile with aplomb, creating a larger-than-life stylized character that generated unease from her first appearance. The role of Madge has been played by men in other versions. Here, Madge’s witches, or demons, are played by the men of the company (Roger Creel, Justin Michael Hogan, Sanjay Saverimuttu and Benjamin Wetzel at the performance I saw; also Jonathan Paul, Ryan Stokes, Rob Morrow and Christopher Scruggs), which creates an opportunity to give the excellent male corps more stage time in a story that is heavily weighted to female roles.
The secondary male role, Effie’s rejected suitor Gurn, was danced by Rob Morrow on Friday (and also Eduard Forehand). Morrow always brings an element of quirkiness to his stage personas, and here Gurn has the unenviable task of convincing the villagers that he has seen the Sylph. Taking full advantage of Bournonville’s specific mime conventions, Morrow caused a ripple of chuckles through the Whitney as he averred that he had seen this with his very own eyes.
The first act is set within a Gothic-style lodge in the Scottish Highlands, replete with fireplace, chandelier decorated with horns and a suggestion of hills through the window (sets and costumes courtesy of the Houston Ballet). Both this setting and the idyllic forest of the second act add to the Romantic nature of the ballet’s storyline. The villagers’ costumes are a gallimaufry of plaid that create as much confusion as color in the charmingly executed reel in the first act.
Act two of “La Sylphide” is, of course, a showcase for the female corps. And as with the Studio Connections program fifteen months ago, the Louisville Ballet’s ensemble of eighteen women were elegant and elegiac in equal measure. The sylphs seemingly-floated effortlessly between choreographic tableaux, filling the Whitney stage with gossamer billows of fabric. The sylphs’ choreography balances the signature intricate footwork and the extended, precision of rounded arm movements suggesting the lightness of an ethereal being. The dancers maintained the delicate and deceptively loose-wristed attitudes throughout act two with ease. The roles of the leading sylph and the two secondary sylphs were danced by Christy Corbitt Miller, Kateryna Sellers and Ashley Thursby on Friday evening. These three brought a fluidity and interconnectedness to their divertissements that provided an assured framework for the larger ensemble sequences. (These roles were also danced by Emily Reinking O’Dell, Leigh Anne Albrechta and Tiffany Bovard.)
The program included two names for lighting designer, but only one biography in the program, leading to confusion as to how much of the design might be attributed to Michael T. Ford, the Louisville Ballet’s longtime lighting designer, and how much to Michael Hottois, who is credited as “after” Ford. The program also included an article about Romantic Ballet, attributed to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. While this general context was interesting, it would have been much more informative to have read about how the Louisville Ballet approached the Bournonville style, providing a local insight into preserving and honoring ballet history. This generic article also highlighted the decline of male roles during this period of ballet history, despite the fact that the role of James is one of the early Romantic period’s most robust roles for male roles.
As reported in November, Simpson will retire at the end of this season, and the company will seek a new artistic director. At this time of transition, Louisville audiences can hope that the strong tradition established by Simpson of honoring choreographic traditions combined with a commitment to new choreography will continue to anchor the Louisville Ballet’s repertoire.