Friday, January 26, 2018

SONG OF THE EARTH / LA SYLPHIDE at the London Coliseum

Much to my surprise, my first ballet of 2018 was not at the Royal Ballet or a Matthew Bourne at Sadler's Wells, no it was at the infrequently-visited English National Ballet at the London Coliseum who were presenting an intriguing double-bill of Kenneth MacMillan's SONG OF THE EARTH and the classic romantic ballet LA SYLPHIDE.

It all made for a pleasant and enjoyable evening but both ballets seemed to lack *that* spark or *that* bass note that is found in practically all Royal Ballet productions.  It was all very well-danced but the connection of deep emotion and movement just seemed to be lacking.

In 1965 Kenneth MacMillan choreographed his dance version of Gustav Mahler's song cycle "Das Lied von der Erde" for the Stuttgart Ballet at the invitation of the company's director John Cranko who was an admirer of MacMillan's work.  His vision is based around a man, a woman and a figure representing death who slowly perform solos and pas de deux within a larger ensemble until the figure of death claims the man, but as MacMillan said they "find that in death there is the promise of renewal".

His production was a huge success and eventually opened at the Royal Ballet six months later to equal acclaim, a particular triumph for MacMillan who had wanted to stage it at Covent Garden six years previously but was told the music was wrong for a ballet!  SONG OF THE EARTH famously provided the swansong for Darcey Bussell when she left the Royal Ballet in 2007, the event even being broadcast live on BBC2.

Tamara Rojo was captivating as The Woman while Joseph Caley as The Man and Fernando Carratalá Coloma as The Messenger of Death gave good performances too.  I loved the austere beauty of the production and any occasional lapses I had during it I think can be attributed to that indefinable something that separates the good from the very good.  I would definitely see another production of it again.

After the lyrical and austere symbolism of SONG OF THE EARTH, it was time for the over-the-top narrative romanticism of LA SYLPHEDE - it was quite a wrench!

I have two memories of LA SYLPHIDE - seeing HIGHLAND FLING, Matthew Bourne's modernised take on it in 1994 as well as, and I remembered this just as the curtain went up, having a Walt Disney album when I was growing up of famous pieces of ballet music which had music from LA SYLPHIDE included on it... the memory eh?

LA SYLPHIDE first appeared as a ballet in 1832 in Paris by the choreographer Filippo Taglioni whose equally famous daughter Marie danced the lead role.  Four years later the Danish choreographer August Bournonville wanted to stage it at the Royal Danish Ballet but, when faced with an inflated price by the French for the original score, he simply choreographed his own version to a new score by the Norwegian composer Herman Severin Lovenskiold.  Bournonville's version has been the production that has lived on - indeed this production was from the Royal Danish Theatre - while Taglioni's choreography has vanished from public memory. 

Both were based on an 1822 gothic romantic novel by the French writer Charles Nodier which set the template for Romantic ballets with doomed love, winsome heroines, strapping heroes and flurries of ghostly spirits.

James, a young Scottish man, is asleep on the eve of his wedding day but watched over by a Sylph that adores him.  He awakes but she vanishes before his eyes, he questions his friend who saw nothing but readies himself for the arrival of his bride Effie and her family and their friends.  He thinks he sees the Sylph again but it is an old witch who prophesies that Effie will marry James' best friend.  Finally the Sylph appears again and realizing he loves the ghostly creature, James follows her into the woods, leaving the wedding party in disarray.

Once in the woods the old witch conjures up a cursed diaphanous shawl just as James and The Sylph appear.  The Sylph summons her ghostly ensemble of sisters who dance for the couple but they are eventually interrupted by the wedding guests.  They all leave when James' friend proposes to Effie who accepts.  The witch gives James the shawl to wind around the Sylph but when he does he inadvertently destroys her.  After watching her being lifted to the heavens, James dies.

Unlike the more sombre GISELLE which premiered five years after Bournonville's production, LA SYLPHIDE cannot help but look a bit overwrought and unintentionally lame with it's reliance on over-the-top mimed gestures between the lead characters but it has a charm and what's not to love with a stage crowded with a female ensemble, moving as one in long tutus and wings?

Although the performances of Erina Takahashi as the Sylph and Ciro Tamayo as James were full of light and airiness, again I felt I would have gained more if the Royal Ballet had been dancing it; yes it should be lightweight but there should also be some gravitas in the peril James and the Sylph find themselves in which was lacking here.

However, as an introduction to the two ballets, it more than served it's purpose and I enjoyed the double-bill as such... and it was nice to recall the Disney l.p. too!

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