Peter Schaufuss has mounted at least 35 versions of his production of La Sylphide for companies around the world. He originally staged it in 1979, when he was a principal dancer with London Festival Ballet. Dame Beryl Grey, Festival Ballet’s director, knew that he had loved the 1836 ballet ever since he had performed in it as a child in the Royal Danish Ballet, where his parents were leading dancers.
Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre is intimate, its ballet-loving audience familiar with August Bournonville’s romantic ballet in many different guises over the years. Schaufuss has reimagined La Sylphide for larger theatres and audiences who might not know the tragic old fairy tale. He tells the story in broad brush strokes, with plenty of humour and magic tricks. Careful coaching in the fleet-footed Bournonville style guards against the production’s popular appeal coming too close to pantomime.
When Li Cunxin, artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, asked for La Sylphide for audiences in Brisbane earlier this year, Schaufuss decided to present the company in his production at the Coliseum in London in summer. Though decades have passed since Festival Ballet (now ENB) last danced La Sylphide there, memories still linger of Schaufuss himself as the hero, James, and Canadian ballerina Eva Evdokimova as the Sylphide.
Queensland Ballet uses the sets and costumes designed for Festival Ballet by David Walker. James appears to have inherited a baronial hall somewhere in Scotland, complete with tapestries, armour and an outsize chandelier made of stags’ antlers. He and his clan members wear a muted tartan, softer than the red favoured by his fiancée Effie and her clan. She changes her outfit to signal that she is about to be married to James. It’s going to be a big event, with two pipers leading most of the neighbourhood in Highland reels and formation dances.
But a lovelorn Sylph has appeared to James, appropriating the tartan shawl he gave Effie for herself, and luring him into her domain, the forest. Why does he respond? Because, like the best romantic ballet heroes, he yearns for the unattainable. To spell out his dilemma, Schaufuss has added a solo for James in Act I, full of circling ronds de jambes and frustrated flying leaps. Wednesday’s James, Luke Schaufuss (Peter’s son, currently with Birmingham Royal Ballet) danced the interpolated solo as though he was indeed thinking about his options, not just executing the steps. He has a delightfully springy jump, kilt swirling about him, and an elegant upper half. Only 21, he has staked his claim to the role, the third generation Schaufuss to do so.
Who or what is the Sylph? Each interpreter relies on her own charms to entice James away from his intended marriage. Bournonville’s sprite is wilful, innocent, coquettish: she is definitely not a Wili, out for revenge on faithless men. Sarah Thompson, not yet a soloist in the company, is charmingly seductive, with a pliant back and shoulders and softly rounded arms. She understands that the Sylph doesn’t mean mischief. She just wants her own way with the man she has loved from a distance since he was a boy: Effie simply can’t have him as a husband.
Mia Heathcote is bright and bouncy in the role, dancing an exuberant solo at the wedding celebration to show what a catch Effie is. Her spurned suitor, Gurn (Vito Bernasconi), is made into too much of an oaf: Effie definitely deserves better. He has to partner her sister, a very small girl, in the intricate reel that fills the stage with vigorous country dancers. (The nine London-based children involved were taught by Janette Mulligan, former ENB principal, now QB ballet mistress, and mother of Tara Schaufuss, one of the company’s Sylphs.)
While the celebrations are in full swing, Schaufuss has introduced an out-of-time trio for James, Effie and the Sylph. The dream sequence is signalled by a dramatic change in the lighting and the music’s tempo: effective but not really necessary to explain James’s indecision. In Monday’s cast, Cuban Yanela Pinera as the Sylph seemed to be channelling malevolent Myrtha as she bounded past her rival; Thompson is sweetly, sadly reproachful, a kinder spirit.
Who or what is Madge, the crone who interferes so vindictively? She could be a mad old relation, fond of Gurn and outraged by James’s behaviour; or she’s an evil spirit from the forest, a sylph gone bad. In the Queensland production, she cavorts comically with four male witches in the forest, supervising their sewing bee and knocking back a vile brew from her cauldron. Greg Horsman as Madge is both a fraudulent fortune-teller and a wicked old thing. He/she drapes the poisoned scarf around her shoulders as possessively as the Sylph did with James’s tartan shawl. This scarf will be an instrument of death in James’s hands. When Horsman pulls himself up to his full height to confront James, he is scarily commanding. His/her gesture of triumph over James’s lifeless body as the curtain falls is also a lament at what she’s brought about.
Queensland Ballet’s corps of sylphides in Act II are diligently coached in the decorous Bournonville style, without looking drilled into uniformity. The speedy steps require considerable stamina, especially from the leading three (Pinera on Wednesday, with the other two unnamed on the cast list). Thompson and Luke Schaufuss are endearing in their encounters with each other and buoyant in their solo variations, without matching the heights of their illustrious Festival Ballet predecessors. But this production comes up fresh with youngsters in the many casts who appreciate the Romantic ballet’s history and can deliver its lasting charm. Australian audiences are lucky to have La Sylphide in Queensland Ballet’s repertoire (while the Royal Ballet has to do without Johan Kobborg’s production, now that he has moved on to Romania). Could ENB bring it back?