Milwaukee Ballet mounts Midwest's first full-length 'Sylphide'

Many of the ballets of Danish choreographer August Bournonville have settings outside his native Denmark; one is even called ''Far From Denmark.'' So, when Scottish bagpipes recently charged a rare, warm spring evening in Milwaukee, they marked the real-world setting of Bournonville's ''La Sylphide,'' 1836, a ballet which is also about wood sprites and witches.

Thus, attentions were drawn to the 14-year-old Milwaukee Ballet Company's (MBC) recent performance of this work, the prototype of the Western Romantic ballet.

''La Sylphide's'' story is of an idealistic and poetic farmer, James Reuben, who forsakes his fiancee, Effie, on their wedding day in order to pursue the elusive and beautiful Sylph. James and the Sylph grow to love one another. But other supernatural beings, Madge, the village witch, and her attending hags, compound evil affairs. Because Madge tells Effie things which create doubts about his love, James drives away the sorceress. Madge never forgives James. In the end, Effie marries Gurn, the farm supervisor, and James kills his Sylph. The ballet is a visual metaphor for finding and holding one's dreams and ideals.

Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), one of the world's first ballerinas, created the ballet's essential movement qualities in 1832 - those of the pure, ethereal sylphides, as well as the perennial romantic image of the ballerina wearing a three-quarter white tulle gown and a flower garland in her hair.

These matters, plus the fact that there are four full principal roles, assure the ballet's durability. In fact, James is one of the great roles for the male dancer. It is apt then, that in the month and centenary year of Marie Taglioni's passing, MBC has mounted the first production of the full-length ''La Sylphide'' by a Midwest company.

That fact reflects the purposeful four seasons during which the company has had its artistic direction from Ted Kivitt. A former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Mr. Kivitt himself danced the role of James not so long ago - in ABT's 1971 production to Carla Fracci's Sylph. Just as James Reuben in the ballet, in many ways Mr. Kivitt in Milwaukee has been chasing his dream. However, unlike James, since he took over MBC in the 1980-81 season, Mr. Kivitt has had to grasp realities and deal with them - most often in the form of budgets.

''Every time I open my mouth,'' he says soberly when queried, ''it costs money.'' Having, he explains, 31 of his 41 years in dance, he wants ''to give something back.'' And that ''something'' costs money. Somehow he is finding it.

To assure a high level of ''quality and artistry,'' Kivitt has chosen 40 new works for MBC's repertoire - both classics and ballets by young choreographers - which reflect his program to nurture the company's technical level.

As a result, this season the company's performance level has been much finer than last - even though everything does not always go exactly right. While visually stunning, ''La Sylphide'' was not always dramatically certain about the differences between ordinary mortals and supernatural beings. Missing was the almost cold and certainly unsentimental tone of fairy and folk tales, one usually distinct in Bournonville's work.

The leads, however - MBC's Michelle Lucci and guest Gregory Osborne - were totally right together. Mr. Osborne, rangy, blond, danced a convincingly moony James to Ms. Lucci's deft, thoughtful, but less persuasive Sylph. If not yet in command of the difficult Bournonville technique, the supporting dancers and the corps are pointed in the right direction. All technical parts of the production were first rate, including the machinery whooshing witches off into the wings. In sum, MBC's ''La Sylphide'' is an honest and beautiful addition to Midwest dance.

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