La Sylphide, which Atlanta Ballet presented last weekend at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, is a Romantic ballet blanc (white ballet), with all the key ingredients: a man in love who turns out to be a faithless cad; a broken hearted fiancée; supernatural women in white; and a witch who creates magic, havoc and death.
The internationally recognized Johan Kobborg produced this award-winning version for England’s Royal Ballet in 2005 and Atlanta Ballet brought it into its repertory in 2019. Kobborg added some of his own choreography but this is a ballet firmly rooted in tradition. It can seem quaint to contemporary audiences, but Atlanta Ballet honored its history in two fine performances Saturday afternoon and evening.
Sergio Masero and Airi Igarashi in the pivotal lift in Act II (Photo by Kim Kenney)
What’s unique about La Sylphide, compared with another familiar white ballet, Giselle, is the Bournonville technique, named after the creator of the original 1836 ballet, Auguste Bournonville.
This means that in two dance-filled acts there is only one lift. It occurs at a critical moment when the lovestruck Scotsman James grabs hold of the elusive Sylph he has stupidly fallen in love with. (He’s supposed to be marrying his sweet, sensible fiancée Effie.) He lifts the Sylph above him, but she starts to wilt and slips out of his embrace. Her wings fall off and she dies, poisoned by the witch’s scarf.
Saturday evening, the ballet opened with the always noble Denys Nedak as James asleep in an armchair in front of the fireplace. Emily Carrico as the Sylph knelt next to him, all gossamer white. Her first gesture was almost imperceptible, a slight movement of the head, then shoulders and arms, delicate, otherworldly. She danced around his chair then mischievously kissed him, waking him. James’ wedding preparations were underway, but distracted by the Sylph — his Romantic ideal — he followed her blindly into the forest.
Nedak and Carrico are mature dancers who embodied the drama rather than simply acting it and they were a joy to watch. Nedak has a large frame and style that is well suited to bold, space defying variations, but on Saturday he compressed that energy and training into the crisp, quick dynamics the ballet requires.
Carrico darted between emotions like a firefly: coy and demure one moment, flirtatious, evasive, teasing or tearful the next. Her upper body was often tilted slightly forward in the traditional style, her arms lifted delicately in front. But her acting in the ballet’s final swept her performance onto a different plane. Her facial expressions reflected shock, sadness, confusion, love — her fingers stroking the air as if trying to roll back time.
They were joined by Kobborg himself; he portrayed the witch Madge as a seriously evil force. Victorious at the end and standing over James’ lifeless body, Kobborg’s Madge opened his/her mouth in a mirthless, soundless laugh. It was a dark and superbly etched performance.
Darian Kane was the Saturday matinee Madge. Her portrayal was broader, her cruel laughter at human foibles more pronounced, but effective in its own way.
The corps de ballet performing the Scottish reel in Act I (Photo by Kim Kenney)
Most of the opening act is firmly rooted in home, hearth and reality. Instead of tights and pointe shoes, the women wore knee socks and soft black shoes. Men and women alike wore brightly colored jackets and kilts.
The Bournonville technique is demanding for even the strongest technicians, often requiring that jumps be executed with the arms low or carefully positioned in a way that doesn’t do much to aid elevation. For the most part, the dancers met the challenge at both performances. The jolly Scottish-inspired reel and the variations for James, Effie and their friends featured small, fast jumps and beats, all well defined.
Sergio Masero, the matinee James with Airi Igarashi as the Sylph, sprang upwards multiple times like a rocket blasting off the launch pad, executing clean entrechat six (six beats in the air), his arms cleanly placed.
Masero did an excellent job with the technique – his compact frame is well suited to the style – but compared with Nedak and Carrico his and Igarashi’s emotions seemed skin deep, almost there but not quite. She is a lovely dancer, however, and aside from a wobbly turn in her first variation, brought charm and delicacy to the role.
Kobborg holds the poisonous scarf that ultimately kills the Sylph. (Photo by Shoccara Marcus)
And if neither Nedak nor Masero were able to completely nail the multiple turn variation in Act II, it’s likely because their mastery of the technique earlier in the ballet had overtaxed their legs.
The set designs by Søren Frandsen were perfect – solid wood beams and a heavy chandelier decorated with antlers emphasized the groundedness of Act I, while the pale trees framing Act II set the mood for the Sylphs misty realm. The corps de ballet was well rehearsed in both acts.
Juliana Missano danced Effie at the matinee and was sweet but reserved. Sojung Lee gave the role a stronger edge in the evening. Anderson Souza (matinee) and Erik Kim (evening) managed to bring life to the rather thankless role of Gurn, the unpopular guy whom Effie eventually marries.
It’s always great to experience ballet with live music: Tara Simoncic deftly guided the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra through the H.S. Løvenskjold score.
During the curtain calls at the end of the evening performance, artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin walked on stage, knelt before Kobburg and presented him with flowers, a gesture usually reserved for the lead ballerina. It was well deserved.
Gillian Anne Renault has been an ArtsATL contributor since 2012 and Senior Editor for Art+Design and Dance since 2021. She has covered dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and Ballet News, and on radio stations such as KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California. Many years ago, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship to attend American Dance Festival’s Dance Criticism program.