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

A look at "La Sylphide" through the years.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009; Page M01

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.

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