David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; May 7, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz in La Sylphide.  Photo Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz in La Sylphide.
Photo Paul Kolnik

At last night’s Spring Gala, New York City Ballet unveiled its new production of Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’ La Sylphide. Despite a fine staging and several stellar performances, the audience response, at least from the tux and gown crowd in the orchestra, was less enthusiastic than it should have been for a premiere, much less for a ballet classic.

A key may be found the audience’s response to the initial piece on the program, the revival of Bournonville Divertissements, which was received – with good cause – enthusiastically. Obviously then, it’s not some adverse reaction to the Bournonville style. Indeed, there is considerable kinship between Bournonville and Balanchine, and NYCB audiences are not unfamiliar with the rapid-fire pace of the choreography. And it’s not that it’s a story ballet, since those that NYCB performs sell quite well, and are well received; or that NYCB audiences don’t appreciate Romantic ballets – NYCB audiences, even those who only attend performances to accumulate air kisses at galas, are more sophisticated than that. I think it’s that La Sylphide is, ultimately, a depressing morality tale that contemporary audiences viewing a Romantic ballet don’t anticipate, even if they read program notes.

Martins’ production is based on Bournonville’s 1836 version for the Royal Danish Ballet, and that has been performed by them continuously since. Although there are some performance differences between the Martins and Royal Danish versions, which may be a product of the company’s lack of familiarity with the Romantic style, in the overall scheme of things they’re minor.

La Sylphide is a product of its time. It’s not an uplifting, cathartic story like Giselle, even though the lead there dies of a broken heart, but a morality tale in keeping with the bulk of gothic fairy tales then circulating – particularly those of the Brothers Grimm, who published their first collection in 1812.

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz in La Sylphide.  Photo Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz in La Sylphide.
Photo Paul Kolnik

In the story, James, who is engaged to Effie, imagines, or actually sees, a beautiful sylph. He also spurns the entreaties of Madge, a friendly local homeless witch. But kindhearted Effie and Gurn – James’s friend who not so secretly is in love with Effie – come to the old woman’s aid. Eventually, James loses himself to the sylph of his dreams, but, with Madge’s connivance, ultimately kills her. In the meantime Effie, who has given up on James, weds Gurn. Consequently, in his quest for the sylph, James loses everything.

So La Sylphide is a morality tale on a number of levels. Some consider it a story of justice triumphant – James is punished for his poor treatment of Madge, and Gurn rewarded for being kind to her. But it’s more that James is destroyed because of his pursuit of some imaginary perfection, and for not being satisfied with what he has. Regardless, after watching the enthralling sylph brighten the stage throughout most of the ballet, and visualizing a libretto that’s mostly lighthearted and comic, the sylph’s sudden death, Madge’s triumph, and James’s downfall are unexpected blows to the gut that leave an audience numb. The sylph is dead, James got his comeuppance, and there’s nothing for an audience to be happy about.

Except there is: in the nature of the relatively unadulterated production and the quality of the performances. Two performances in particular stand out. Sterling Hyltin’s glorious Sylph is Romantic perfection: she danced light as a feather; her feet seemed never to touch the ground, much less make any sound. Having seen Hyltin fly through Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements just a few days earlier, one has to marvel at her versatility as well as her capability. And as Hyltin’s Sylph is the essence of ethereality, Georgina Pazcoguin’s Madge is her opposite. Ponderous, wicked, and tough as nails. Pazcoguin’s interpretation is so vital and dominating that, if not for Hyltin’s gossamer portrayal, she would have stolen the ballet.

Joaquin de Luz’s James, however, was more problematic. His command of the Bournonville style is virtually impeccable, but there is something about his characterization that comes across, perhaps intentionally, as insincere and superficial. Making James into a somewhat unlikeable character is not unusual, and it helps to soften the blow to think that James gets what he deserves – perhaps this is what Martins was looking for.

But, part of the tragedy of La Sylphide is not that James is unlikeable, but that he can’t resist the temptation: the Sylph’s novelty and attraction is too great. That irresistible magnetic attraction was missing. James’ response to her was less a product of attraction than it was a factual given. Coupled with the audience’s knowledge that the Sylph loves him (at least on an ‘imaginary’ level), an egocentric James is somewhat less believable. My preference is for a James whose predicament, and whose plight, is more clearly portrayed; one with which some viewers who tend to reach for unreachable stars might more readily sympathize, and possibly identify.

Sterling Hyltin, Joaquin de Luz and company in La Sylphide.  Photo Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin, Joaquin de Luz and company in La Sylphide.
Photo Paul Kolnik

Daniel Ulbricht’s Gurn is very much the opposite of De Luz’s James. At times, he is portrayed simply as a conniving opportunist, but Ulbricht’s characterization was spot on: an opportunist he was, but not a conniving one. This Gurn has a heart. And as Effie, aside from overdoing the mime (a problem that, except for Hyltin and Pazcoguin, plagued others in the cast as well), Brittany Pollack‘s somewhat befuddled Effie was delivered appropriately.

A few further random observations. In Act I, the wedding guests dance the Scottish reel. In some productions, this is perfunctory. Not here. The dance is flat out marvelous, and the integration of the children at the wedding party – young dancers from the School of American Ballet, with Maya Rosefsky as the ‘lead’ child – is both seamless and enchanting to watch. The Act II corps scenes, however, are a bit too remindful of Giselle (a stylistic inevitability), but even more strongly of Swan Lake. James searches for the Sylph as if he were searching for a swan queen. Perhaps this is common to
all versions, but I’d not noticed it previously.

The sets (including the delightfully ‘unrealistically real’ painted fantasy backdrop for Act II) and costumes, both designed by Susan Tammany, enhance the production immensely.

And for the occasion, NYCB imported another Dane to conduct its orchestra: Henrik Vagn Christensen, who was associated with the RDB for many years. The orchestra seemed somewhat tentative at first, but provided a superlative rendition of Herman Severin Lovenskjold’s score as the ballet progressed.

Tyler Angle in Bournonville Divertissements.  Photo Paul Kolnik

Tyler Angle in Bournonville Divertissements.
Photo Paul Kolnik

Created by former RDB principal and SAB teacher Stanley Williams for NYCB in 1977, and restaged for this revival by Nilas Martins, Bournonville Divertissements is a collection of dance excerpts that encapsulate the Bournonville style. With one exception, every dancer shined.

Erica Pereira and Allen Peiffer led the Ballabile from Napoli Act 1 with pizazz, and in the closing Pas de Six from Act 3 and Abdallah, Lauren King, Rebecca Krohn, Megan LeCrone, Lauren Lovette, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Amar Ramasar, all dancing individually or in pairs, and Anthony Huxley dancing solo, looked like they were born to it. That was not the case with Sara Mearns in the pas de deux from Flower Festival from Genzano, the second excerpt in the piece. Her pasted-on smile and more mature demeanor didn’t fit the role, and looked particularly artificial having recently seen Ida Praetorius in the same pas de deux with the RDB Soloists. However, her partner, Tyler Angle, nailed the style and attitude. It’s unfortunate that he’s not scheduled to portray James this season.

The concluding excerpt, the Tarantella from Napoli, Act 3, danced by the entire cast, was a most delightful presentation, with the celebration universal (including from Mearns, who danced her part fabulously) and effervescent enough to penetrate the fourth wall. One could sense the audience restraining itself from applauding in sync with the percussive tambourines. Perhaps, when La Sylphide is scheduled in future seasons, the powers that be might want to make Bournonville Divertissements the closing piece on the program, to send the audience home in a more festive mood.