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American Ballet Theatre

'La Sylphide' and 'Airs'

by Jerry Hochman

June 20 mat and eve, 2009 -- Lincoln Center, New York

“La Sylphide,” considered the oldest surviving ballet, was first performed in Paris in 1832. Choreographed by Filippo Taglioni, it was famously performed by his daughter, Marie. Soon thereafter, the ballet was remounted in a production choreographed by August Bournonville for the Royal Danish Ballet, and danced by Lucile Grahn. It is the Bournonville version that has survived.

Known for being the first ballet in which the ballerina danced extensively en pointe, and also for being the first romantic ballet, “La Sylphide” probably has survived as much for its story as for its style. Light, airy, humorous, and beautiful to watch (particularly in this wonderfully staged production), it is also a surprising and ultimately devastating morality tale. The fact that the ballet ends unhappily is not the point – it is an unexpectedly ignoble unhappy ending, a how-could-you-have-let-that-happen ending. Delightful as it is, it ends with a sock to the gut. Notably, "La Sylphide" was first presented in a time when fairy tales were being memorialized as scary cautionary lectures, and the story is one that could have been created by the Brothers Grimm - who published their collection of fairy tales in multiple volumes that span the time period in which "La Sylphide" was created.

The two performances of “La Sylphide” that ABT presented on June 20 were well danced by both sylphs – Hee Seo in the matinee, and Veronika Part in the evening. But while both performances were beautifully executed, it is Ms. Part’s portrayal – her acting as well as her dancing -- that will be etched in my memory. There’s nothing wrong with being cute, but Ms. Part’s sylph was more than that.

When ABT announced its casting for this week’s performances, one could envision the sylphs to be danced by each of the leads – except for Ms. Part. In all the productions I’ve seen, the sylph is a sylph – that is, as airy and light on her feet as a fairy ought to be. Gelsey Kirkland’s sylph is an example, and I’ve seen Lis Jeppesen dance it many times – even if, given the passage of time, I’m not sure I really did. But Ms. Part is not a sprite. That she became one for this performance was not just a triumph of impeccable technique (which, of course, it was), but a tribute to her ability to transcend technique and become her character.

Effervescent as Ms. Part’s sylph was (and she was delightfully bubbly), hers was a mature person who happened to be born a sylph. The consequence for the piece is considerable. James’s infatuation with a cute little girl/sprite is no longer an issue: he and this sylph are on the same level – although, of course, they come from different worlds. So, with the elimination of the age variable (he should have known better than to fall for a cute little Tinkerbelle), one aspect of the morality play (look what happens when you mess with “others”) becomes more focused. The difference, though seemingly minor, was, for me, seismic.

Ms. Part's performance was ably complemented by Cory Stearns's portrayal of James, Craig Salstein's Gurn, and Kelley Boyd's Effie.

It's becoming repetitious to observe that Mr. Stearns is having a break-out season, but it's true. He continues to surprise in whatever I've seen him do. While purists may complain that he didn't sufficiently execute the Bournonville technique, he was appropriately exuberant (rather than just explosive) and demonstrated the pure dancing joy that to me both reflects and projects the Bournonville style. He's enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm is infectious. And although the impeccable technique isn't there yet, he has begun to remind me a little of Fernando Bujones (if Bujones had been from Long Island).

Ms. Seo’s afternoon performance, her first lead in a full-length (well, close to full length) in New York, was delightful. She danced with surprising lightness, and was deliciously appealing. While nuances and subtlety will develop over time, her performance was more than simply promising.

The witch Madge was danced by Victor Barbee in the matinee, and Martine Van Hamel in the evening. Both were barely recognizable. Mr. Barbee's characterization, though never inappropriate, was so strong that it overwhelmed everything and everyone else who happened to share the stage at the same time. To me, he was the epitome of evil. Ms. Van Hamel's was a kinder, gentler Madge, making her ultimate triumph less a triumph of bad over good than the inevitable outcome of James's lapse of judgment.

These performances were paired with Paul Taylor's "Airs." Buoyant and balletic, but also infused with dignity and grace, "Airs" was a perfect complement to "La Sylphide." And while the Taylor technique appeared to be more grafted than natural, each performance by the two different casts captured the soaring spirit in Taylor's choreography. But more than that, these performances showcased less familiar corps dancers who performed with exemplary skill, boundless energy, and endearing youthfullness. Devon Teuscher and Katherine Williams were particularly impressive, and Ms. Williams is a dancer who draws eyes. Both bear watching in the future.

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