In August Bournonville's ballets, there are scenes where everyone dances at once and the plot thickens in a very short time. This also describes the scene-behind-the-scenes at the Boston Ballet. The results are visible in the authentic production of Bournonville's 1836 ``La Sylphide'' at the Wang Center through this weekend. Kilts swirl and argyle socks twinkle as the corps de ballet sweeps through a Scottish reel. In its midst, down-to-earth Effie searches for her fianc'e, James, who has left her side to gaze up at a creature in a gauzy white dress and little wings, who waves at him from atop an armoire.
When danced right, a scene like this is cinematic. You're aware of the crowd, but your eye is drawn to just the right characters at the crucial moments, as if you were seeing close-ups. The Boston Ballet is dancing it right. Laura Young is sly and quick as the Sylphide, though her leaps seemed to give her trouble on opening night. Guest star Fernando Bujones's James is a man torn by contradicting impulses. The dancer has almost managed to batten down his famous style, though he jumps much higher than Bournonville would ever have asked. Only his arms, meant to be held in a low, modest circle, betray him. The hands are beautifully calm, but when his feet slice through beats or he draws an artful circle in the air with one knee to the side, the arms go ramrod-straight as if to say ``Yikes!''
Bournonville's detailed footwork was demanding in the 19th century; for athletic, airborne 20th century dancers it's even harder. It's no one's fault that Niels Bjorn Larsen of the Royal Danish Ballet steals the stage playing Madge, the witch. After all, Mr. Larsen has had 68 years of Bournonville training (see feature at right).
The corps owes its fleet-footedness to Larsen's daughter, Dinna Bjorn, who brought ``La Sylphide'' from Denmark, and to its artistic director, Bruce Marks. ``This is the exciting time, this is the building time,'' Mr. Marks said in an interview. He took on the directorship in 1985 after the death of the founding director, E.Virginia Williams, and has just signed a contract for five more years with the company.
The corps has been one of his primary concerns. After a performance of ``Giselle'' last year, he recalled, ``I brought Fernando in front of the corps and said, `You can buy principal dancers, but you have to make a corps de ballet.''' To gain more experience, the company will perform 107 times in the '88-89 season, up from 83 last year, with each program running over two weekends, and with 43 performances of ``The Nutcracker,'' the biggest moneymaker.
As the corps is built up, the company is refurbishing its studio and classroom facility. Marks scoffs at the notion that Yankees don't give money to the arts, especially dance. A fund-raising campaign netted $7.6 million. Marks plans to continue offering Bostonians new works along with the classics. He has produced ballets by such controversial choreographers as Mark Morris, and a choreographers' competition that gives young artists a chance to work with the company will be a biennial event. Ticket sales were up 25 percent last year.
``Bruce is successful because he's really the artistic director of the rest of this century and the next,'' says Elaine Bauer, a principal dancer who retires this year after 18 years with the ballet. ``He has artistic abilities; he has business sense; and he's a presenter - have you ever heard him talk?'' She remembers the transitional period before Marks was hired. Williams was gone. Her successor, Violette Verdy, resigned. Resident choreographer Bruce Wells took over just as the roof collapsed at the Wang Center, the company's home theater. A tour with Rudolph Nureyev had to be canceled, and the company was $1 million in debt. In such situations, ``the fact that you can get out there and do what you do is a saving grace,'' says Ms. Bauer.
Now, with better reviews, more funding, and Marks's plans, everything is pointing at renovation, she says.
``Nothing seems impossible for us,'' says Marks.
Father dances a mean witch
The most powerful character in the Boston Ballet's ``La Sylphide'' is Madge, the fortune teller. Her stabbing cane and sweeping gestures seem to fill the stage. She is a magnificent witch, danced by Niels Bjorn Larsen of the Royal Danish Ballet. Larsen, who celebrated his 75th birthday after last week's dress rehearsal, said his attitude towards his work hasn't changed: ``I love it.
``I came to the Royal Theater [in Copenhagen] when I was six years old, and I have been through all the levels in a dancer's career,'' including seven years as company director.
Danish choreographer August Bournonville made roles for dancers of all ages, and the company still performs them. ``My career is as long as it has been because there are so many character parts,'' says Larsen. ``All my life I have had something to do.''
This is the first time he has danced under his daughter's direction. Dinna Bjorn, a choreographer in her own right, staged ``La Sylphide'' here just as it was notated by an early Bournonville follower. She didn't add her own touches because ``it was so complete in itself,'' she says.
She is happy with her father's performance. And he says, ``I think she has done it beautifully.''