Australia’s Queensland Ballet made its London début with a spirited performance of La Sylphide last night.
Dancers from Down Under captivated crowds of theatregoers at the London Coliseum with Peter Schaufuss’s Olivier and Evening Standard Award winning 1979 retelling of August Bournonville’s enduring masterpiece.
Fleet feet, buoyant jumps and charming characterisation kept balletomanes rapt all evening. Fresh from a sell-out season in Oz, Queensland Ballet’s interpretation of La Sylphide undoubtedly demonstrates why the troupe enjoys international acclaim and holds a permanent place as one of Australia’s premier dance companies.
Bournonville’s version of La Sylphide — inspired by Filippo Taglioni’s 1832 original — is the oldest surviving Romantic era ballet. A renowned Danish ballet master and choreographer, Bournonville choreographed La Sylphide for himself and his star pupil, Lucile Grahn, in order to showcase his own unpretentious but technically excellent style and her exceptional grace and lightness. His production has been continuously performed as part of the Royal Danish Ballet’s repertoire, in addition to being faithfully recreated by companies all over the world, ever since its premiere at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1836.
Two realms collide with tragic consequences in this dark fairy-tale. As an archetypal Romantic period ballet, La Sylphide is all about polarised opposites. The familiar versus the unknown. Robust humanity countered by elusive ethereality. Earth contrasted with air.
Our unfortunate hero, a young Scottish laird named James, is due to marry his Highland sweetheart, Effie. On the morning of the wedding, James awakens from his slumber to discover that the fascinating figment of his dreams — a beautiful winged Sylphide — is kneeling at his feet. In the moments before dawn breaks, she flits and flutters around his cosy farmhouse before vanishing like smoke up the chimney. Hopelessly infatuated, James finds himself torn between his obsessive desire to chase after this alluring otherworldly creature and his impending (not to mention eagerly anticipated) nuptials.
Queensland Ballet Principal Yanela Piñera effortlessly embodies the title role. Her Sylphide appears to be perpetually carried by an unseen wind. Every delicate step en pointe seems to hover mid-air as never-ending balances drift into feather-light hops, rapidly beaten jumps and soaring grand allegro leaps. Her fluid arms and gentle expression deftly portray the magical woodland fairy’s vulnerability and almost childlike persona. Nonetheless, a spark of passion burns brightly in this exciting dancer and her dynamism is evident when the sprite’s playful streak comes to the fore.
Guest Artist Qi Huan is joining Queensland Ballet on their current tour from the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He proves himself to be an athletic and affable James. Breezing through the speedy and demanding batterie sections, he exploits his easy elevation during countless jigs, leaps and springs. He turns impressively in the unassuming Bournonville tradition (these stylised pirouettes encompass a very basic use of arms and a clean finish in a tightly closed fifth position with the feet) and exudes nothing less than elation when dancing James’s exuberant solos.
The tartan-clad mortals who populate James’s Scottish reality perform feisty, fun-filled ensemble numbers. These feature perky classical ballet steps infused with lively folk elements which echo the Highland reel. Kilts, tam o’shanter caps and plaid dresses in rich red and pine green leave the audience in no doubt as to the Scottish setting.
Queensland Ballet dancer Sarah Thompson joined the Company after completing its Professional Year Program. She made her European debut on opening night as bride-to-be Effie but will also appear as the Sylphide during this week’s London run. Her Effie is energetic, enthusiastically effusive and emphatically earth-bound. She is the complete contradiction to Yanela Piñera’s Sylphide.
James abandons all the people he loves in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. Ditching his fiancée, he chases the Sylphide into a misty, moonlit glade deep in the Highland forest. He discovers her among her sister sylphs, who dance for him. Here, Queensland Ballet’s female artists display strong classical technique and an eloquent understanding of the nuances of Romantic era dance quality.
The La Sylphide Act Two pas de deux is distinctly different to any other conventional ballet pas de deux in that there is not a single lift. In fact, the principal dancers cannot touch at all throughout the ballet as the Sylphide evades every effort James makes to embrace her. Despite this, the connection between Yanela Piñera and Qi Huan — and their responsiveness to composer Herman Severin Løvenskiold’s celebrated score (wonderfully played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the direction of Andrew Mogrelia) — is simply exquisite.
Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet Li Cunxin (a former international star dancer and author known for his bestselling book and the film Mao’s Last Dancer) certainly had plenty to be proud of when the curtain closed on an outstanding opening night. Ballet aficionados can only hope that the company’s foray onto the world stage will be swiftly followed by future visits to the capital.
Queensland Ballet‘s La Sylphide continues at the London Coliseum until Saturday 8th August 2015.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.