Oregon Ballet Theatre
Keller Auditorium
Portland, OR

February 18, 2023, evening
La Sylphide

Dean Speer

There is an assumption among some ballet novices that La Sylphide is merely an alternative spelling of Les Sylphides and that both titles refer to the same work. Not true, the “La” Danish one dates from 1836. It is a reworked version of an 1832 Paris ballet with fresh music by Lovenskiold and choreography by August Bournonville (who had seen the Parisian one and tried to get it, but couldn’t afford the music rights, so commissioned his own version).

While I’ve long known the difference between the two ballets, except for watching it on television many years ago, I believe ABT with Fernando Bujones, I had never seen it live on stage and was excited and very much looking forward to seeing this famous Bournonville ballet for myself.

The Bournonville style is characterized by its light effortless technique, small quick allegro steps, and how the torso and head are carried (epaulement). Also, its sense of joie de vivre — joy. Interestingly, this is Bournonville’s only tragic work; the rest are sunny, spunky, and light, even if there might be evil magic or villains afoot. Happy endings!

Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe
in August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide”
Photo by Jingzi Zhao

With this series of shows, sadly for local audiences but happily for the Hong Kong Ballet, we had to say farewell to principal dancer Xuan Cheng who is concluding her 11-year run with OBT and has assumed the joint positions of Hong Kong Ballet star and Ballet Mistress. Congratulations! You will be missed.

Cheng did not miss a step or beat during her turn as the fairy (Sylphide) and was cool and direct in her dancing from Act 1 through her tragic demise. The character, James, unintentionally causes her demise when he places a charmed (cursed) scarf on her shoulders, causing her wings to fall off, and blindness and death quickly follow.

Oregon Ballet Theatre in August Bounonville’s “La Sylphide”
Photo by Yi Yin

James (Brian Simcoe) tries to capture the unobtainable (a Romantice-era notion) and by accepting the scarf from a vengeful town witch, Madge (played to superb effect by rehearsal director Lisa Kipp), he not only causes his elusive love to expire but misses out on marrying his own human fiance (Jessica Lind). In this production, James is also expired by the time the red velvet curtain rings down.

Simcoe is an excellent dancer/actor and carries his part so well. His cabrioles and petit allegro were crisp and clear and his port de bras easy and well-shaped.

Jessica Lind and Brian Simcoe (center)
and Oregon Ballet Theatre
in August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide”
Photo by James McGrew

Another important character is that of Gurn who, while a friend of James, is in love with the same girl. He wins his love due to James’s distracted inattention to Effy (Lind) on their wedding day. Gurn also wins by showing kindness to Madge that James does not. James actually threw her out of the house. (The moral of the story is, be nice to old ladies who magically show up on your fireplace hearth.)

The big Act I production number is a Scottish Reel, performed by a large ensemble, including 5 OBT School students. All were well-versed not only in the choreography but in it style as well. Nice, clean footwork from everyone and a sense of elan. Following the Reel, during which the Sylphide makes a brief grand jete appearance, James runs out to the woods to follow her, leaving a bereft Effy, her mother (Elizabeth Burden), and the villagers.

Act II opens with what could practically be the three witches cauldron scene from Macbeth (…”cauldron, boil and bubble…”) with Madge “cooking” up the aforesaid scarf with aid from her coven friends. Nicely creepy and fun work.

Lisa Kapp (center) and Oregon Ballet Theatre
in August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide”
Photo by Jingzi Zhao

Part of this Act features the Sylphide dancing with her cohorts in a multi-section showcase. Their ensemble work was spot on, and thrilling was an all too short pas de quatre, so similar in content and visuals to the Four Little Swans of Swan Lake decades later. It was exciting. Unfortunately, we weren’t treated to an encore.

Xuan Cheng in August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide”
Photo by Yi Yin

This authoritative staging was done on the OBT dancers over the course of a few weeks by very experienced Bournonville experts Frank Andersen (former artistic director and dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet), his wife Eva Kloborg, Sebastian Kloborg, and Anne Marie Vessel-Schluter.

The mighty OBT Orchestra was lead by guest conductor Enrique Carreon-Robledo, who literally saved the day by filling in for someone who had become indisposed.

A shout-out to Linda Besant for her very well researched and presented (superb slides and content) pre-performance talk, not to be missed, and a great aperitif to the ballet.