A reel of one's own
THERE is a Scottish reel in the first act of the ballet ``La Sylphide,'' but if you tend to confuse this ballet with ``Les Sylphides'' to Chopin's music, you won't remember a reel. Even having seen the right ballet, you may still have missed the reel . . . . Danced by the corps de ballet, it comes at a dramatic moment, when the sylph of the title is trying to lure the hero James away from his bride-to-be.Skip to next paragraph
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I overlooked the reel several times. But now that I have danced that reel -- and in the company of professional dancers -- I feel that I own a few steps of ``La Sylphide,'' and the next time I watch the ballet, it will be with a proprietary interest in the reel.
How I as a nondancer came to dance the reel requires a little digression into dance history.
The original version of ``La Sylphide'' premiered in Paris in 1832, and it was memorable as the first ballet in which the ballerina danced an entire role calling for pointwork.
The version we know today, however, is Danish. Produced in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Ballet, it celebrates 150 years of continuous performance this year, and it is the Danes' major contribution to the international ballet repertoire.
The very essence of the early Romantic movement in Europe is captured in ``La Sylphide'' -- the longing for faraway places and unattainable ideals, combined with folkloristic color, which in this case is the reel. The ballet also represents a style of dance and a school of training that were developed in Paris and that have been preserved to this day in Copenhagen. It is a style in which repose of the head, arms, and torso contrasts with continuous virtuosic footwork, quick changes of direction, and sudden leaps which seem effortless. With no pause for bows, the dance line serves a dramatic context and never the dancer's personality.
The creator of ``La Sylphide'' was August Bournonville, the Danish-born son of a French ballet dancer who settled in Copenhagen and became director of the Royal Danish Ballet.
Following truly in his father's footsteps, young Bournonville completed his own ballet training at the Paris Op'era and remained with the company for six years, becoming acclaimed as a solo dancer. Returning to Copenhagen where he, too, became director of the ballet, Bournonville wanted to produce ``La Sylphide'' -- not least of all to showcase his own dancing.
Lacking funds to rent the original musical score from Paris, Bournonville commissioned a new one from a Danish composer and made changes in both the scenario and the choreography. He didn't avoid charges of plagiarism but he created a work that history has validated.
Hans Christian Andersen, a lifelong friend and artistic colleague of Bournonville, wrote scenarios for several of his ballets. Bournonville's father had rejected the teen-age Andersen as an aspirant to the ballet, and it was in August Bournonville's home, years later, that Andersen met and fell in love with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind -- who also rejected him. Andersen did, however, have the satisfaction of seeing his fairy tales translated and known throughout Europe, whereas Bournonville's ballets were largely unknown outside Denmark during his life.