Johan Kobborg’s Sylphide

“… La Sylphide choreographed by  August Bournoville is one of the most famous ballets of the Romantic era. Johan Kobborg‘s production is steeped in the greatest traditions of the  Bournonville style and training of which he himself is an expert exponent.” – Monica Mason

Marie Taglioni, La Sylphide, Alfred Edward Chalon (RA), Richard James Lane (A.R.A). lithograph, coloured by hand – Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The  Royal Ballet  of London has included one more gem in its repertory this season: La Sylphide. As part of  May/June’s double bill, this ballet was performed along with George Balanchine‘s Ballo della Regina, with Alina Cojocaru and Steven McRae  at the opening night.

The ballet which was originally choreographed by  Filippo Taglioni, the father of Marie Taglioni, had its debut at Paris Opera in 1832. However, in 1836, August Bournonville recreated the ballet for the Royal Danish Ballet, with additional changes including emphasis on the footwork and uninterrupted allegro sequences — arms in bras bas letting the legs do all  the work — which have become the Danish ballet’s hallmark.

 As importing the scores of the original music was too expensive, Bournoville commissioned new music from the Danish-born musician Herman Løvenskiold, who included original Celtic melodies, and elements of the reel dance.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Act 2 of La Sylphide  – Photo: © Bill Cooper via Ballet.co

Set in an imaginary village of the Highlands of Scotland, the ballet tells the love story between James, Effie and the mysterious sylph. The costumes designed for the Danish production also reflected typical elements of the Scottish culture. Made of different colours of original tartan,  the dancers’ kilts were just like the Scots’ original outfits, which had the essential accessories such as sporran, kilt pin, tam o’ shanter and the buttons sewn diagonally on the corps of ballet’s fitted jackets. In this ballet, pointe work is limited to the sylphs, whose jumps and bourrées give a supernatural touch to their characters.

La Sylphide is one of the remaining XIX century romantic style masterpieces, which portrayed heroic princes, in contrast to frail and delicate ballerinas. While La Sylphide is a short-lenghted ballet, it contains all the elements of the romantic era, such as romantic tutus, soft port de bras, including impossible love stories between earthly and spiritual beings as in Giselle.

The Sylph comes through the window (Steven McRae, Alina Cojocaru)  – Photo: © Dave Morgan  via Dance Tabs

Since 1836, ballet companies have kept Bournonville’s tradition. However, in 2005 the production was reviewed by Danish-born Johan Kobborg, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet who was trained by the Bournonville method in Denmark. Having reviewed the ballet, Kobborg did his best to maintain the piece’s original characteristics. However, he added some parts of the musical score that had been removed from the Danish production. Other changes included the addition of the mime sequence where James tells his friend Gurn about his encounter with the sylph, and a brief pas de deux between James and the sylph in the second act. According to the dancer, the inclusion of these parts in this Royal Ballet’s production was important to provide more fluidity and coherence between the scenes.

Leticia Stock, Leanne Cope and Iohna Loots as Effie’s friends – Photo: © Alice Pennefather via the Ballet Bag

This season, Kobborg also played the role of James alongside his fiancée Alina Cojocaru as the sylph. Delicate, but with an impressive stage presence, Alina did justice to the ethereal Taglioni’s role immortalised in the XIX century paitings and lithographies. The chemistry between Kobborg and Cojocacu is clearly visible, and the emotional connection between them is quite noticeable in James’s moments of torment every time the sylph appears.

Central to the plot is Madge, an old lady who appears at James’s and Effie’s wedding party, to warm herself up next to the chimney of the house. Thrown out of the house by James, she swears revenge. Not only she convinces Effie marry Gurn, but also she poisons the shawl used by James to attract the Sylph who dies when he kisses and touches her. Madge had already been interpreted by male dancers before. But this time, Kobborg has decided to choose a woman do perform this role. Technically impeccable, Kristen McNally has shown her acting skills. However, her delicate and youthful manner overshadowed the character’s machiavellian personality.

Kristen McNally as Madge with artists of The Royal Ballet – Photo: © Alice Pennefather via the Ballet Bag

José Martin, under the skin of Gurn, provided us with delicious and fun moments in the pursuit of James who fled with the sylph during his wedding party. In trying to describe the figure of sylph to the party guests, the dancer made the audience burst out laughing.

Although many writers state that women were the central figure of the XIX century ballets, in la Sylphide, James plays a key role in the story. In this production, Kobborg demonstrates clarity in the mime scenes and shows  so much lightness and precision his his allegro steps.

The integration of corps of ballet with the scenery was impressive. On various occasion, the dancers’ static poses mingled with the bucolic scenery of the XIX century ballet, that reminds us of paintings in oil on canvas of the romantic period.

At the end of the show, Alina with a tender and delicate gesture, offered three roses taken from her bouquet to conductor Daniel Capps, Kobborg and Martin, and with an open and spontaneous smile, the dancer bewitched us all, showing the satisfaction of having completed a very well done job.

British critics have highly praised Kobborg’s work who deserves all the compliments and credits, because his production is simply flawless. This only proves that the dancer still has a lot more to offer to the British public.

Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci performing La Sylphide below:

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