'Sylphide' -- as the French did it

What one regards as an archetype is not always the original item. Mention the world "sylph" and a dance- goer will immediately think of the Danish choreographer August Bournonville and his most famous ballet, "La Sylphide."

Well, it happens that Bournonville based his ballet one one made four years earlier, in 1832. The first "La Sylphide" was created in Paris by Filippo Taglioni, and this is the one that Rudolf Nureyev is introducing to Americans at the Uris Theater, where it plays until Nov

Like almost all French Romantic ballets, Taglioni's "La Sylphide" is as ephemeral as the sylphs it describes. Only scraps of notation, sketches, and some written memoirs survive. Pasting the evidence together with his own imagination and knowledge of Romantic dance style, the French choreographer Pierre Lacotte reconstructed this lost curiosity and has birthed what to my mind is a splendid ballet.

The first thing to strike one about the original "La Sylphide" is its modernity. Although it tells a story -- how James runs away with a sylph on his wedding day and in his eagerness to enter her fantasy world loses both his imaginary and real-life loves -- the story line is almost incidental to the action of the ballet. What determines its flow and climaxes are the nature of the dances themselves. And never before have I seen a 19th-century ballet with so much dancing. Talk about cascades of varitions -- this "La Sylphie" is a waterfall of them!

Very possibly, Lacotte cut mime scenes and interpolated full-fledged dances where there had originally been generalized stage action. Certainly he added solos for the male principal, whose prime function in Taglioni's era was merely to partner the ballerina. But Lacotte's embroidery cannot invalidate Taglioni's basic concept of a pure-dance work, and the concept is as beautifully realized as it is bold.

The narrative concept of the French "La Sylphide" is fascinating also because it differs so much from the Danish one. Bournonville created a cautionary tale.It's a world of contrast and conflict, in which an overweaning James is punished for abandoning home and fiancee in favor of unworldly romance. Man's proper place is by the hearth, not in the forest, Bournonville preaches.

The prevailing tone of Taglioni's "La Sylphie" is pathos. James is portrayed as a poet whose spirit always was and always will be with the sylph. In both versions James unwittingly kills the sylph. In the Danish version one feels that perhaps he deserves to lose her. In Taglioni's version one realizes the inevitablility of her demise but sympathizes with James in his innocent blunder.

It was James's sweet innocence that Nureyev captured so beautifully on opening night. He was the lamb to the sylph's ambiguous, quixotic designs. All in all, however, opening night was more leaden than flighty. Ghislaine Thesmar, from the Paris Opera Ballet, was clearly way below her normal standard, and so the crucial role of the sylph was merely a sketch. The Boston Ballet, making its New York debut as a backdrop to Nureyev and Thesmar, wasn't good enough for the likes of the choreography. Taglioni had no use for backdrops, even if Nureyev does. And Nureyev himself simply didn't have the strength to get through difficult solos.

It's a measure of the choreography's strength that it penetrated despite the performances it was given.

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