Atlanta Ballet: La Sylphide

I can’t even begin to describe how delighted I was by the feet Atlanta Ballet’s performance of Johan Kobborg’s production of Bournonville’s La Sylphide last night. Kobborg’s notes for the program point out how distinctive Bournonville’s use of intricate, speedy, and precise footwork is and I have to say he was absolutely right: the bouncing, flitting, flicking, hopping, feet were definitely what held my eye throughout the work.

The sets, one for each act, were largely open space flanked by a good blend of drops and basic furniture props. Both appealed to a sort of dark fairy tale aesthetic and were rich and effective at setting the location and framing for a supernatural fairy tale. Act I takes place in a Scottish manor house, with the set being a sort of great room. A fireplace on the left had a door above it into which the titular Sylph could be lifted for a magical escape and a stairway to the right provided exit for a few characters and a platform for addressing the wedding guests. Both were hard or impossible to see for around a third of the audience due to the angles and positioning on the stage along with the horrid setup of the auditorium with so many of the seats set outside of the proscenium. The stairs could have been more visible but for a leg hung directly downstage from it and I think that one of the entrances upstage could have been moved downstage left to make it so that the fireplace faced the audience rather than having it off to the side. That said, neither set piece featured enough action for this to detract terribly from the show.

The manor house had a door upstage left and a great window upstage right, both of which were used for entrances and exits. The window had a table with books of various sizes stacked conveniently around it to make for a staircase for the Sylph to walk down for one of her entrances. Act II’s set, representing a forest glade, was a little more simple but just as rich looking. Like the set for Act I, there was area behind the backdrop through which the audience could see action. It wasn’t very easy to see through from where I was sitting in the front of the mezzanine, though, and I nearly missed the principal sylph’s appearance during the dance of the sylphs and I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what was going on with the obscured white thing rising up at the end if I hadn’t already known that James is supposed to see the principal sylph being lifted to the heavens.

The costumes were nice looking but not actually good for the production. The men were in kilts with matching stockings and brightly colored jackets. Each kilt was a different tartan, meaning everyone was from a different clan, which is odd for a wedding ceremony. The principal men, James and Gurn, were actually in less bright tartans, which is odd in that they stand out less but also appropriate since tartan skirts break up the lines of the dancers, making it harder to clearly see their legwork. The women’s costumes were all of the same tartan in the beginning and then various shades of white later. Effie had a bolder variant of the same color tartan as the rest of the women and her white dress had some darker embroidery than the rest. Neither was enough to make her stand out significantly from the corps. Although this production came packaged with a costume design by Desmond Heeley, this is a common problem with Atlanta Ballet’s narrative ballets: they just don’t do enough to make the principals stand out from the corps. Also kind of disappointing to me were the wings for the sylphs: they were tiny and anemic. I can’t imagine that any of the sylphs that have ruined my weddings could have managed to do so with such small wings.1

The performances were excellent. Emily Carrico was so delightful as the principal Sylph. Moisés Martin was good, too, though I have to say that I wasn’t terribly excited by Bournonville’s choreography for the men. It tended to focus too much on strength for my tastes, leaving all of the beauty in the piece for the women’s roles. The ensemble work was really good and terribly fun. I normally roll my eyes at including children dancers in an ensemble dance – it’s often just done to bring in a larger crowd and, though it can be cute, it’s often at the expense of the artistic merits of the work – but the kids in the wedding dance sequence did a good job and I didn’t feel that they detracted from the piece at all. And I normally don’t find non-danced roles particularly memorable, but Ashley Wegmann’s performance of Madge was actually a lot of fun to watch: even her facial expressions were big enough to make it to the furthest reaches of the auditorium and she managed to do this without coming across as an absurd caricature. I think that everybody involved in this production made this a wonderful piece of work to watch and I’m very glad to have seen it.

1. This happens to me a lot and is the real reason that you generally see me attending performances alone; not the fact that I’m painfully shy and have a hard time meeting new people. Sylphs really do seem to love stopping weddings. I think they do it to make it easier to steal veils, with which they seem to have an unhealthy fascination. back

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