London Coliseum
August 4 & 5, 2015

Queensland Ballet Principal Dancer Yanela Pinera and Guest Artist Qi Huan in La Sylphide Photo David Kelly

Yanela Piñera and Qi Huan in La Sylphide
Photo David Kelly

Maggie Foyer

Subtropical Brisbane is about as far as you can get from a Scottish glen but that did not stop Queensland Ballet from presenting an impressive La Sylphide with fine attention to detail and engaging performances. And if you want to get picky about ethnicity: we have a Dane, August Bournonville, writing Scottish country dances while a Norwegian, Herman Severin Løvenskiold composes the accompanying melodies. The result is a truly authentic Scotland of the Romantic imagination.

The Romantic Movement may have started in Germany but in Scotland it seemed to find a natural home: gloomy baronial halls, mist shrouded mountains and kilted heroes. The narrative of La Sylphide also has the right ingredients; doomed love, death and the otherworldly. James with matrimonial responsibilities looming, is easy prey for a mischievous Sylph and does what many a young man in similar circumstances might do – he legs it.

Australian dancers have always featured strongly in British ballet, but Australian companies are not generally renowned for period style. It was a brave move for artistic director, Li Cunxin, to present this ballet that demands so much Romantic charm and so little bravura. I had previously only seen the company in more contemporary works and was particularly impressed with the beautifully rehearsed corps of sylphs, their sensitive arms, melting torsos and precision footwork. The trio of leading sylphs were outstanding on both nights. On the opening night the pointe shoes seemed a little noisy but even that had muted by the second performance.

In Act One the full company showed their strength in a swirl of kilts and plaids. The narrative was convincingly sustained with the many minor characters all fully engaged. The pas de huit, taken at a brisk pace, showed the strength of batterie and ballon and the reel was danced with gusto.

On the opening night, Qi Huan as James entered fully into the romantic mood. He was a passionate lover, not yet ready for conjugal life but ripe for the fantasy world that his Sylphide, Yanela Piñera, offered. His passion translated into dance in high buoyant leaps and he accomplished with ease the Danish style of entrechat into grand plié. Piñera matched his spirit as a flirtatious and wilful fairy, her balances hovered effortlessly and she danced with airborne grace. Her teasing and cajoling, contrasted by her bewildering and sudden death, left Huan visibly destroyed and gave the ballet tragic depth.

The opening night Gurn, Shane Weurthner, was a somewhat tentative suitor for the hand of a very appealing Effie, Sarah Thompson. At the second performance, Thompson played The Sylphide. Her coquettish character was finely nuanced and she captured the ethereal quality; silently dancing round the sleeping James and again in the intricate Act Two variation so full of detail and contrast.

Mary Li as Madge.  Photo David Kelly

Mary Li as Madge.
Photo David Kelly

The second night also saw guest artist, Luke Schaufuss, the son of producer Peter Schaufuss, in the role of James. He is a text book example of fine Danish training with light crisp beats, fleet footed runs and beautifully schooled mime. But he was a melancholy, distant James and I think Effie got the better deal by marrying Gurn, a warm and fully committed Vito Bernasconi. Bernasconi is an unabashed rival for Effie’s love and doesn’t miss an opportunity including showing off his fine technique when given the chance. His Effie was Mia Heathcote, a spirited dancer with a vibrant stage persona who gave the character sufficient depth and appeal to make the audience really care about her fate.

The characters of Madge and fellow witches are painted with broad brushstrokes in this production. Madge’s make-up borders on the outrageous but Greg Horsman scored with height and power and Mary Li gave a strong performance but looked just a tad too attractive, despite her rats’ tail wig and rags. The opening of the second act is played for comedy as four hefty men in witches’ robes crash land, park their broomsticks and get down to brewing the poison potion.

David Walker, who so loved the Romantic period gives of his best in these designs. His fairies are a delight. The brooding hall has deep shadows, enough to mask an errant sylph, but easily comes to life when injected with human warmth while the forest glade is full of mystery tinged with menace.

Conductor, Andrew Mogrelia, coaxed an incredibly beautiful overture from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and varied the pace with great sensitivity and skill.

It was a treat to see Schaufuss production back on the London stage and a delight to discover a worthy interpreter in Queensland Ballet.