The Leading Men Of Ballet Have Long Looked Back Before Leaping Into 'La Sylphide'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

As bloodlines are revered in horse racing, as past owners of a painting are charted by collectors, so, too, is the idea of provenance cherished in ballet circles.

Who trained you, and that person's link to past luminaries, is a matter of conferred authority. The art of ballet is passed down through a laying-on of hands, the older dancer nudging a younger one into the right position, adjusting her chin, her elbow, even her thoughts. If your hips are being tugged at by the famous Madame So-and-So, from whose slippers champagne had once been drunk, and her interpretive gifts had been groomed by the renowned Dame X, who long ago had felt Anna Pavlova's reproving hands on her (Pavlova, of course, having stood in front of Michel Fokine as he made her into his "Dying Swan"), well, you've got much more than bragging rights. You've got a fruitful link to a source of this most ephemeral of the arts, which has no better method of preserving itself than a fragile oral tradition.

These days, when adding an unfamiliar ballet to its repertoire, a company could resort to copying the choreography from videotapes and DVDs, but so much of the artistry of dancing is lost that way. Ballet conveys its meaning and its emotional power not only through the steps but also through myriad little intangibles of human expression. These are what the camera can't always capture, and what a dancer schooled only in technique can't convey. Without that natural warmblooded dimension, a performance feels dry.

As we get further away in time from the creators of the great ballets of the 19th century, staging a ballet production that has any provenance to speak of is harder to do. This is why what is happening at the Washington Ballet is so astonishing. One of the hottest male dancers in the country and two members of the Royal Danish Ballet are teaming up in a production of the enchanting but seldom-seen 1836 ballet "La Sylphide," by Danish choreographer August Bournonville. The Danes have been dancing this ballet ever since its premiere, one generation instructing the next in Bournonville's steps as well as in his emphasis on clear storytelling, dignity and understated bravura.

His name may not be that familiar to American audiences nowadays, but Bournonville was the Lord Byron of romantic-era ballet, and a master of telling stories in dance. Since he was a dancer as well as a choreographer, he created great bouncy, juicy roles for himself in his works, for which male dancers have been grateful ever since. Performances of "La Sylphide," his most famous ballet and, with its Scottish setting, a feast of kilts and tartans, will run Feb. 11-15 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

The Tiniest of Motions

The Washington Ballet has never danced the two-act, hour-long work before, so Artistic Director Septime Webre appealed directly to the Royal Danish Ballet, safekeeper of Bournonville's nine existing ballets as well as a powerhouse of male dancers. Among the greats to have left Copenhagen for wider fame are Erik Bruhn, the paragon of a danseur noble, and a longtime leading man at American Ballet Theatre; Peter Martins, the New York City Ballet star, now its director; and Adam Luders, Ib Andersen and Nikolaj Hübbe, who also found success at City Ballet. (Hübbe now heads the Danish company.)

Webre hired Sorella Englund, a retired ballerina, now a Royal Danish Ballet instructor, and Thomas Lund, a leading dancer, to stage "La Sylphide," and for the past few weeks they have been teaching it to the dancers. Though it's artistically preferable, going this route is time-consuming, inefficient and expensive -- ballet officials turned to the Danish Embassy for support, as this production "had a higher than average cost," a spokeswoman said, declining to be more specific. In this economic climate, who knows how long the price of provenance can continue to be paid?

Webre also asked David Hallberg, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, to guest-star in several of the performances in the role of James, the dreamy Scottish laird and doomed hero of "La Sylphide." Hallberg, tall, blond and 26, is a busy man -- he'll be opening ABT's productions of "Swan Lake" and "Pillar of Fire" when the company performs at the Kennedy Center the week after "La Sylphide" (Feb. 17-22). Why, then, should he agree to moonlight with a small regional troupe? Like much in ballet, it all comes down to emotional connections. Two years ago his boyhood teacher, Kee-Juan Han, became director of the Washington School of Ballet, the company's training arm. And you don't say no to the person who taught you your first plié.

Also, Hallberg was keen to work with Lund, who can trace his artistic lineage all the way back to the great Bournonville himself. Just three generations get you there, in fact: Lund's ballet teacher was the onetime associate director of the Royal Danish Ballet and Bournonville expert Kirsten Ralov, whose teacher had been Hans Beck, who was chosen by Bournonville at the end of his life to carry on his style.

In other words, all that separates Hallberg from Bournonville is a series of rehearsals, like the one that took place recently and concerned a nap.

Of all the feats you might ask a professional dancer to do, acting out a nap has got to be one of the easiest. Who among us couldn't pull that off? But in the ballet world, where in the best circumstances not only the steps but also the gestures and mannerisms that make up a character are passed down like the family silver, there are right ways and wrong ways to doze onstage, as Hallberg found out.

James's nap starts the story. "La Sylphide" tells of a man who chooses the wrong woman and pays for it in blood. It ends in shattered illusions and tragedy, but it begins in utter innocence, with a dream and a kiss.

A sylph -- a winged woodland fairy who was a sort of metaphysical Betty Grable to romantic-era poets -- is hovering over James while he is dreaming by the fire in a chair. He wakes to her kiss, falls in love with her, leaves his mortal bride at the altar (this all takes place on his wedding day) and chases after the sylph into the wild heath. But the happiness he thinks they will have in the mist is not to be: A witch who bears a grudge against James tricks him into capturing his elusive love with a poisoned scarf. The sylph, once caught, perishes in his arms, and James, depending on the dancer, either dies in despair or is emotionally destroyed.

It's a piercing little corker of a ballet, tender and cruel, swift-paced and full of airborne dancing. But for a ballet as steeped in emotion as this one, the steps are one thing, the feeling is another, and equally important. This is where Lund comes in.

"Now, be careful not to make it like you're Aurora, going to sleep for a hundred years," he says to Hallberg, referring to the princess heroine of "The Sleeping Beauty." Lund is a boyish 34, dark-haired and compactly built. He's wearing a fleece jacket and track pants that drape loosely over the thighs of a sprinter (the arcing jumps and all that petit allegro -- the swift, bubbly steps Bournonville was known for -- develop men with impressive quadriceps). He speaks in a charming, lightly accented singsong.

Hallberg, wearing a T-shirt and sweats rolled up to his knees, is sitting in a chair, assuming his initial pose, leaning back, eyes closed. Lund tweaks his position, making him look more upright and less collapsed, pulling his legs in a bit. Then, as the two listen to Herman Severin Lovenskiold's yearning, lilting music, Lund points out a beat when Hallberg, if he wishes, might draw a breath and visibly sigh in his sleep, signaling a change in his subconscious, "like it's the opening of a book," Lund says. Then there's the point when he turns his head -- this is the restless sleep of an artistic soul, not the heavy stupor of a field swain.

Lund takes a turn in the chair as Hallberg watches, and the two switch off, repeating the moment -- just a few measures of music -- over and over. Next, Hallberg's response to the sylph: He shouldn't immediately turn in her direction but blink out to the audience, disoriented.

"You know how it is when you wake up and you don't know where you are? It takes a while before he realizes what has happened," Lund says.

Lund takes Hallberg's place in the chair, shows him how, when James catches sight of the sylph, he should jump to his feet and spread his arms wide. Come into my arms, the gesture tells her.

"Then she's gone, and you're very confused," Lund says. "It's like, what I saw is all the dreams that I ever thought I'd want to see, and then it's gone in a second."

Lund returns to the chair, showing how James should somewhat hesitantly resettle himself, processing what he just saw in order to resume the nap. "Here, it's good if your eyes lose focus a bit, like you've dropped into your thoughts," Lund tells Hallberg, who watches intently.

Not even five minutes of the ballet have transpired, and Hallberg's character has hardly danced a step, and yet it's taken perhaps 30 minutes of rehearsal. They move on. Just as James drops off to sleep again, his fiancee, Effy, enters the room and wakes him. James mistakes Effy for the sylph and grabs her. She can tell he wasn't dreaming about her and in a poignant bit of mime, she confronts him with her doubts.

Lund shows Hallberg the gestures of the centuries-old ballet shorthand, a musically driven sign language that once had a place in all the 19th-century ballets. Nowadays, mime passages are often edited out or, worse, poorly performed, their meaning lost. Danish dancers learn mime as children, and Lund translates each gesture into words, turning the movements into a clear, natural conversation between James and Effy:

Me? I was just there sitting.

What were you thinking of?

Of course, you.

You were thinking of me? I don't believe you.

Stop -- wait. I love you.

Hallberg follows behind him, repeating the motions, appearing to think each one through.

It would, no doubt, be easier if the rehearsal were all about glissades and jetés, rather than about the mime and how to fill these nondancing moments with drama, but this is what he signed on for. For the next half-hour, he says little, watching Lund with his arms tightly crossed and brow furrowed, occasionally voicing his uncertainties.

"I just feel it's hard to convince . . . ," he murmurs.

And: "The pantomime is a little cloudy for me."

Lund is patient, encouraging. He shows Hallberg options to try, when his own ideas don't feel quite right. "James consists of doubts," he says in an interview the next day. Should he marry Effy and do what everybody is expecting him to do, or should he follow his dream? Hallberg's hesitancy, Lund says, is an excellent starting point for building a convincing character.

When asked what he thinks of Hallberg's potential in the role, Lund does not speak of the long, elegant line of the dancer's legs or the crispness of his footwork. What impresses him, he says, is Hallberg's humility. And his face.

"I think he will be very good because he has an amazing face," Lund says. "You can read it quite easily."

The Character's Motivation

Here is what is fascinating about rehearsing a ballet, especially a ballet that tells a story. It is not just about learning the combinations of steps, the great leaps and turns that constitute the actual dancing. The art of it lies in those moments that are psychological as well as physical.

What these painstakingly slow rehearsals made clear is the inverse of what you might think. The steps, the brilliantly fluid choreography -- for an especially thoughtful dancer like Hallberg, those are all but superficial details. He and Lund scarcely addressed James's solo variations, the dance sequences filled with those famous Bournonville jumps in which the legs beat together in the air like wings. (Hallberg has danced "La Sylphide" before, in a guest appearance with a Japanese troupe, so he wasn't coming to the role cold.)

The two men focused instead on the quiet moments of the ballet, when James's motivation must be absolutely secure and authentic, because those are the points at which the audience connects on an emotional level, where we either believe the dancers or not, where they show us the human dimension to an old story about fairies and spells.

This is why ballet, alone among the arts, relies so heavily on an old-fashioned dancer-to-dancer method to pass it on through time. No method of recording, whether written notation or film, can substitute for hands-on coaching. The lineage of dancers passing on their wisdom to other dancers joins ballet forever to its past.

But ballet is also a living experience: Young bodies bring it to life, reinterpret it, shape it according to their understanding. So much of ballet's appeal lies in that tension between past and present, the silent, stylized code of the past meeting the energy of today, of tonight. We know ballet is old and layered in history, that it arose out of an ancient feeling about art, that it is "classical" because it is a child of venerable principles of beauty and harmony. But the best dancers will find a way to make the roles they have inherited personal. And they will do this only with a knowledgeable and creative coach, someone to help them tailor the role's demands to what they can uniquely offer.

Hallberg has a hungry, stretched-out way of dancing that makes him a particularly exciting dancer to watch. He also has a sense of poetic reserve, a troubled, semi-haunted air. With that pale, casually swept-back hair and his long-limbed, willowy physique, he looks like a swimmer fresh from the lap lanes in Mission Viejo. But even in an art form that caters to the obsessive, Hallberg is unusually dedicated.

"Guesting with the Washington Ballet gives me artistic fulfillment," he said in a recent interview, drawing a distinction between learning a whole new ballet and performing a quickie duet in a gala, which is his typical guest-dancer assignment. While galas can be fun, Hallberg said, they are "kind of like, wham-bam, do a pas de deux and show off and whatever."

(In the role of James, there's another upside, he says: "I have to be honest -- it even comes down to wearing a kilt. You don't have tights on. It's a liberating feeling.")

Then there was the tantalizing opportunity to immerse himself in a role. "At ABT, it's so different, things happen a lot faster," he says. From Lund, he gained "more texture, more details; his musical timing, his phrasing, his reactions to what's happening."

Lund was simply passing on James's story as it had been passed to him by other Danish dancers. Technique without storytelling, he said, "is just a whole lot of costumes. You have to find a way to make the audience believe in what you do. . . . It's something you have to constantly work with in order to make classical ballet survive.

"For a Danish dancer, doing James is like an actor doing Hamlet," Lund continues. "You know the minute you step into that part you are going in line with some of the greatest dancers who did the same part. There's something special about that feeling."

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