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La Sylphide, antique and timeless

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
04/07/2016 -  & April 8, 9, 2016
La Sylphide
Jurgita Dronina*/Elena Lobsanova/Sonia Rodriguez (La Sylphide), Francesco Gabriele Frola*/Naoya Ebe/Harrison James (James), Sonia Rodriguez*/Stephanie Hutchinson/Rebekah Rimsay (Madge), Meghan Pugh*/Emma Hawes (Effie), Piotr Stanczyk*/Skylar Campbell/Jack Bertinshaw (Gurn), National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain (artistic director)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Philip Ellis (guest conductor)
Johan Kobborg, after August Bournonville (choreography), Herman Severin Løvenskjold (music), Desmond Heeley (set and costume design), Robert Thomson (lighting design)

J. Dronina
(© Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

First performed in Copenhagen almost two centuries ago in 1836, La Sylphide is one of the oldest classical ballets to survive with its original music and choreography more or less intact. The story is a timeless legend of misguided love and evil interference, a tale still relevant in a world where many still shun commitment, are constantly seeking something better and are prey to interfering friends and families. The music and choreography do not have the range and grandeur of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, but a good production of La Sylphide can be touching and haunting. And the National Ballet of Canada’s latest version delivers beautifully, sometimes exquisitely.

The new staging by Johan Kobborg, the peripatetic Danish dancer-choreographer, was first presented in 2005 by Britain’s Royal Ballet. The sets and costumes by veteran designer Desmond Heeley (who was doing stunning work for both the National Ballet and for Canada’s Stratford Festival by the mid-1960s) evoke both the 18th century landscape watercolours of John Robert Cozens and the portrait and landscape paintings of Thomas Gainsborough from that era. Heeley’s palette encompasses earth toned wood interiors and clothes in powder-puff blues and grays with accents of mint tartans and muted red for the hero James’ stunning jacket. Visually, this production is so overwhelmingly beautiful it almost doesn’t matter if other aspects may be less stellar. Fortunately, the dancing for the Thursday evening premiere was first class with Jurgita Dronina appropriately graceful, even moth-like as the titular Sylphide whose seemingly innocent charms lead James astray. As James, Francesco Gabriele Frola was a standout, technically very solid and always dancing in total rhythmic synchronization with the orchestra. Handsome, elegantly masculine and genuinely charismatic at age 23, his performance may well be that of an emerging star and it was no surprise that he got the evening’s biggest ovation when the final curtain came down. His landings weren’t always flawless, but overall his dancing was so impressive it seems he needs only further experience to perfect his work.

As Madge the fortune-telling witch, Sonia Rodriguez gave a further outstanding performance. The endless miming can be tiresome for many and, from today’s perspective, seem like unkind parody of a silent movie. Rodriguez however has really nailed this old hag, even showing occasional hints of remorse and loneliness among a wealth of scene stealing detail — it will be interesting to see her switch gears and dance the Sylphide for Saturday’s performance.

Other soloists were consistently excellent and the corps work, while not as machine-like as in the National Ballet’s 2009 revival of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty, achieved consistently high calibre.

If there was disappointment, it was the routine playing by members of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in the pit. Under the direction of guest conductor Philip Ellis, one can only assume there was little or no rehearsal with the players. Nonetheless, the fine dance performances and magnificent designs brought this treasured antique ballet to life with powerful affection and rare lustre.

Charles Pope Jr.



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