New York City Ballet's Indiana Woodward in "La Sylphide" Photo by Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s
Indiana Woodward
in “La Sylphide”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

February 13, 2016

Jerry Hochman

For this winter’s New York City Ballet season, and in conjunction with Valentine’s Day weekend, the company presented an encore eight-performance series of Peter Martins’ staging of La Sylphide. I caught up with the current run on Saturday night, in time to see Indiana Woodward, a promising member of the corps, in her debut performance as the Sylph, and Joseph Gordon, another highly promising corps dancer, who portrayed Gurn (a role I had not seen him dance previously). Both performances, as well as a repeat outing by Anthony Huxley as James, provide further confirmation of the depth of this company.

Generally considered to be the oldest performed Romantic ballet, La Sylphide is very much a creation of its time. It’s  acknowledged as having been loosely inspired by early 19th Century French author Charles Nodier’s story, Trilby, ou le lutin d’Argail (1822), with the characters changed in the ballet’s libretto from a goblin/elf loved by a fisherman’s wife to a bewinged sylph lusted after by a besotted farmer. A contemporary of the Brothers Grimm, Nodier is best remembered for writing Romantic, vampire, or gothic tales of the ‘fantastique’, and has been called the conservator of the land of dreams. Indeed, both the goblin in the original story, and the sylph in the ballet, are spawned in dreams.

It may have been record-breaking cold outside the DHK Theater, but Woodward’s delightful, dream-like sylph warmed the stage. The role suits her well – the lyricism she displayed so vividly in The Blue of Distance earlier this season is readily apparent, as is the aura of sylph-next-door innocence. She appeared understandably nervous at the ballet’s beginning, but settled down and delivered an outstandingly animated and nuanced Act II, with a superbly touching ‘death’ scene. Her technique (she needs to keep her back from lurching slightly backward during her otherwise blithe-spirited leaps) and her characterization will get even better over time. Gordon doesn’t yet have the shading that Daniel Ulbricht brings to the role of Gurn, but few do. Aside from that, Gordon was an ardent and believable suitor for Effie (danced by Megan LeCrone), and his lack of deceitfulness and guile gave his character a refreshingly warm heart.

But Huxley’s James, who I noted last year was the finest James I’ve seen, was equally extraordinary at this performance. His technical facility and apparent comfort with the role (and the Bournonville style) makes his James not only believable, but thrilling to watch, and his presence dominated every dance he was in.

As was the case with many of his story-telling contemporaries, Nodier’s stories, like Trilby, told moral truths and had unhappy endings. The story of the evil witch Madge (played at this performance by Marika Anderson) triumphing over the selfish James, whose passion for the sylph is in stark contrast to his lack of charity and cavalier attitude toward everyone else in the piece, is somewhat of an unpleasant surprise to audiences unfamiliar with it.There’s no catharsis, as in Giselle; just a dead thud at the ballet’s end.

In my initial review of this production, which followed Bournonville Divertissements on that program, I noted that concluding the program with La Sylphide left the audience morose as they left the theater. I suggested that the next time La Sylphide was scheduled, it might be advantageous to have the program begin with that ballet, and end with something more energizing. This season, La Sylphide has been paired with George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, with the latter concluding the program. Ending the program with this remarkable ballet made a considerable difference – it sent the audience home cheering.

I must confess that I prefer Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 in its original NYCB form (1964) as Ballet Imperial, with the sumptuous set by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. The piece, one of Balanchine’s homages to Petipa, Tchaikovsky, and the Russian Imperial ballet tradition, cries out for more than just gentle chiffon skirts and a flat background. But I understand why Balanchine made these changes (as well as choreographic changes that included eliminated mime from the original 1941 production for American Ballet Caravan).Homage or not, by 1973 it was more significant to emphasize where he was and was going, not where he came from.

Be that as it may, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 is a remarkable piece of work – a bridge between, and a synthesis of, Russian classical ballet and contemporary Balanchine ballets that distill the choreographic stage presentation to its essence. Everything is there – the majesty as well as the purity; the reverence (literally) for the classical past and the audacious originality inherent in Balanchine’s style and creativity.

At Saturday’s performance, led by Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, all the NYCB dancers, including the dazzling 16 woman/6 male corps and featured soloists Kristen Segin, Sarah Villwock, Devin Alberda and Daniel Applebaum, executed Balanchine’s choreographic extremes brilliantly. But particular kudos to Ana Sophia Scheller, who danced Balanchine’s more rapid-fire footwork in her role with quicksilver facility and unbridled energy.

All in all, this was a fine Valentine’s Day weekend program. But if I could make a suggestion – another one – next time, try Romeo + Juliet or The Sleeping Beauty. Or better still, and speaking of impossible dreams like James’s sylph, perhaps Suzanne Farrell can be persuaded to share Balanchine’s Don Quixote.