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Highland Fling
Washington Ballet

'La Sylphide' and 'Celts'

by Carmel Morgan

February 12, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC

In a program titled “Highland Fling,” perfectly timed for Valentine’s Day romance, the Washington Ballet premiered one classical and one contemporary ballet, each with either Scottish or Irish flair – August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide” and Lila York’s “Celts.”  The addition of a handful of guest artists, in particular American Ballet Theatre’s David Hallberg and Joel Prouty who has danced with Boston Ballet, raised the caliber of the Washington Ballet’s performance.  Indeed, “Highland Fling” left everyone in high spirits.

The Washington Ballet excels in modern works that showcase the company’s spunk and exuberance.  In “La Sylphide,” however, the company appeared transformed.  What has often seemed missing – nuanced artistry and matchless technique – suddenly materialized.  The reason for the appearance of these elements is hardly a mystery.  The Washington Ballet’s adept Artistic Director, Septime Webre, sought the assistance of Sorella Englund and Thomas Lund of the Royal Danish Ballet to stage Danish choreographer Bournonville’s 1836 “La Sylphide.”  In reaching out to retired ballerina Englund, an instructor at the Royal Danish Ballet, and Lund, one of the Royal Danish Ballet’s principal dancers, Webre scored a huge victory.  “La Sylphide” as performed by the Washington Ballet stayed true to its historic origins.  The performance avoided seeming stuffy, instead pulsing with tenderness and heartache that felt completely up to date.

Webre, again showing his wisdom, asked Hallberg, a tall, blonde ABT principal dancer, to take the role of James in “La Sylphide.”  Hallberg’s boyhood ballet teacher, Kee-Juan Han, is the director of the Washington School of Ballet, and the Washington Ballet has certainly benefited from their close relationship.  Hallberg, in fact, danced with the Washington Ballet as a guest artist last April in Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.”  One hopes that Hallberg will continue to join the Washington Ballet in the future.   

Hallberg approached perfection as an astonishingly vulnerable James.  His infatuation with the flirty Sylph (Elizabeth Gaither) manifested itself in every movement.  While his emotions were entirely human, his dancing seemed just as otherworldly as that of the supremely elegant Sylphs.  Hallberg’s enviably long legs propelled him into graceful jumps that made him look like he naturally takes to the air now and then – like he, too, sported wings.  His dancing evinced breathtaking mastery.   

Gaither’s Sylph was more feisty than soft, yet letting the Sylph’s playfulness come to the forefront made sense as it was through her games that she ensnared the smitten James.  She impetuously kissed him at the ballet’s beginning, as he slept, but he awakened upon the brush of her cheek.  Her impulsive behavior started the ball rolling in this crush turned tragedy.  When James’ fiancé Effie (a very charming Laura Urgellés) entered the room after the Sylph had disappeared, it was clear that the Sylph was responsible for James’ dreamy stare and not his bride to be.  As the horror of the Sylph’s impending death sank in, Hallberg and Gaither’s acting skills rose to the challenge.  The duo, rather than resorting to empty gestures, carried off their ill-fated roles with finesse, resulting in a truly affecting experience.     

While Hallberg definitely contributed to the success of “La Sylphide,” the corps also danced cleanly and solidly.  Englund, as the vengeful fortuneteller Madge, and Prouty, as James’ friend Gurn, sparkled in their roles as well.  

Following the Highlands theme, the program closed with York’s rousing celebration of Irish dancing “Celts.”  The contrast could not have been greater.  The music, especially, shocked the system.  The Washington Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Scott Speck, beautifully provided accompaniment to “La Sylphide.”  “Celts” had taped music, a lively but somewhat jolting contemporary compilation of Irish tunes.  Fast and fancy footwork replaced the artistic nuance of “La Sylphide.”  A simple blue backdrop with bright spots like sun through clouds took the place of the Scottish castle and enchanted woodlands.

“Celts,” which was premiered by the Boston Ballet in 1996, began with three dancers.  Two raised one above their heads like a formation at Stonehenge.  Soon several dancers in shades of pale gold and green unhinged their knees like Irish step dancers.  Dancers spun with horizontally outstretched arms ending in flexed wrists.   Riverdance they were not, but the Washington Ballet’s dancers, led by electric soloist Prouty, delivered spirited entertainment.  Despite Prouty’s compact body, or perhaps because of it, he displayed high-flying jumps of controlled joy.

In one section, bare-chested men in red skirts circled up, romped around, and threw their fists into the air Braveheart style.  These males engaged in animalistic standoffs.  They bumped chests, grabbed shoulders, and even lifted one another.  Jared Nelson, with his floppy blonde hair, seemed positively feral.

The night finished on an upbeat note.  “Celts” tended toward busyness, and the company needed more precision in the execution of its tight lines and designs, but the audience had a toe-tapping good time.

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