La Sylphide theatre review (Opera House, Sydney)

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The Australian Ballet has had a bit of practice with both ballets on their current double bill. Marius Petipa’s Paquita has been performed 72 times; August Bournonville’s La Sylphide 158 times. So they should reflect proficiency and finesse. And they do. Opening night began with Paquita, the charming story of a gypsy girl who transcends class to find true love. How appropriate, for the Sydney Opera House: it’s the real estate-to-riches story of the Danish princess all over again.
The backdrop, star-spangled, with two elegant  crystal chandeliers hung aloft; the corps de ballet exquisitely adorned in yellow-gold (echoed by the warmth of the lighting) brocaded tutus; enough to provide a buoyancy which served to cushion every leap. They are the only real clues to the supposedly Napoleonic setting. And, beyond what I’ve described, there’s really nothing in the way of set design, which lends considerable impetus to Hugh Colman’s costumes and Francis Croese’s lighting. The rest is up to the dancers and Ludwig Minkus’ bright, sometimes Strauss-like score (the Polonaise, particularly) which, for all its inherent stridency, was communicated with lightness of a croissant by the loveable and versatile Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra, under the goes baton of Paul Murphy. Surely, even Nicolette Fraillon, looking on and listening in, must’ve been impressed.
When it comes down to it, Petipa’s Paquita is really little more than a suite of interconnected vignettes, a showcase for his meticulous choreography and the calibre of dancers who can bring it off. But it wasn’t always so. It was once a full-length work, but Petipa’s interventions diminished its’ duration, while, one surmises, dramatically heightening its impact. It’s of historical note for the fact it was the first ballet the lord of the dance (yes, before Michael Flatley) presented in Russia, in 1847, with the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg in his charge.
Petipa eschews narrative integrity in deference to an explosion of Olympian dexterity, with soloists virtually going head-to-head, in a kind of classical dance-off. For dancers, Petipa’s insistent geometry is desperately challenging. (At a couple of points the distance between dancers wasn’t as ideally equidistant as one might prefer and a line or two was a little wobbly. But, given the degree of difficulty, such trifles are entirely excusable.) For audiences, the production is nigh-on electrifying, in the most charming and understated possible way. After all, Petipa was French, no? Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson put smiles on dials throughout the Joan (Sutherland Theatre), in their grand pas de deux, which in no way discounted the comparable contributions of Amy Harris and her fellow soloists, including Ako Kondo, whose feet never seem to touch the ground. Indeed, for a Frenchman, Petipa seems to have been a quick swot as regards the Russian balletic tradition, with its penchant for high extensions and dynamic turns; of which there are many, effected with the kind of textbook exactitude that could make even the most demanding choreographer cry.
If the feds were to privatise the AB, this could form a pivotal part of the marketing campaign.
The main event, however, was La Sylphide, choreographed by Erik Bruhn, after August Bournonville (as they say); music by Herman Lovenskiold, costumes and set, Anne Fraser; lighting, William Akers, realised by Francis Croese. All of these contributions are such that they insinuate themselves as essential to the success of the production.
The fact it’s one of the world’s oldest surviving romantic ballets is romantic in itself. Then, there were two, but it’s only the great Dane’s that survives. It’s a story very well-told (don’t tell me you haven’t attended a big story ballet and wondered what the heel was going on), in two crisp acts, with precisely the kind of chocolate-box sets nostalgic prefers. Beware of sylphs bearing wings, or fortune-telling witches, may well be the moral of this tale, of a noble Scot, about to marry, when all of a sudden, most likely from the depths of his imagination and existing only there, a delicate, angel-like creature appears from deep in the woods. It has, of course, the quality of a dream.
Being set in a rather imperial Scottish farmhouse (James, the betrothed, is a farmer, but a gentleman farmer by the look of it), costumes for the blokes run to kilts, which means hearts leap into mouths when Daniello Gaudiello takes off. He partnered, on the one hand, Madeleine Eastoe, as the fly-by-night sylph and, on the other, Vivienne Wong, as his fiancee, Effie. The stars are impressive; a memorable highlight being Colin Peasley as the witch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use an index finger with more communicative precision.
[box]La Sylphide plays the Sydney Opera House until November 25. Book tickets [/box]

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