Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Old Ballet/New Ballet

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Old Ballet/New Ballet

Article excerpt

DANCE INSTITUTIONS CAN EXTEND OUR SENSE OF TIME, something that's rare in an overwhelmingly immediate art form. In performances I saw last summer at Saratoga and Jacob's Pillow, the 150-year-old continuity of the New York City Ballet was on view. When contemporary ballet is a collection of ballet-like gestures smooshed together with other dancey and non-dancey things, these three evenings of ballet showed how diverse the real thing can be, and how long lasting.

City Ballet has called Saratoga Performing Arts Center its summer home since the Center opened fifty years ago. This year the NYCB's twoweek residency featured works by its anchors George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, its current artistic director Peter Martins, and the young choreographers Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck. On two programs in July, I was able to see Martins' revival of the 1836 Boumonville classic La Sylphide, alongside the 1977 Boumonville Divertissements by Stanley Williams; and on a second program the Balanchine classics The Four Temperaments (1946) and Symphony in C (1948), together with Martins' Symphonic Dances (1994). At the end of the month at Jacob's Pillow, NYCB principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht and his "Stars of American Ballet" showed a program by Robbins, Peck, Wheeldon and the Danish dancer-choreographer Johan Kobborg. It seemed to me that all the ballets on the three programs were connected, not just because they shared classical ballet technique.

La Sylphide is one of the oldest story ballets in continuous repertory. Like all old ballets, it gets spiffed up periodically, with new costumes and décors and rearrangements of dance designs. The steps remain much the same, but dancers' understanding of those steps changes slightly and slowly over time. No one alive knows exactly what the Royal Danish Ballet dancers looked like in Bournonville's time, but Peter Martins grew up in that company. Boumonville is in his blood. When he immigrated as a principal dancer to the NYCB in 1970, he looked restrained yet impeccably classical, a different animal from the other dancers in that company. I don't know if I ever saw him dancing James in La Sylphide, but I can visualize him in the role.

His new production of the ballet looks authentic except for the scenic elements-electric green and purple tartans, flouncy women's skirts, Disney-esque forest backdrops. Martins has commented that combining the first and second acts to eliminate the intermission is the only change he made. But I noticed a couple of other differences from other productions. The mime passages that explain the characters' behavior seem to have been cut or abridged. When the ragged crone Madge is discovered hiding in the comer, James wants her thrown out, but the others persuade her to read the palms of the wedding guests. Before she gets to predicting that Effie will marry Gurn instead of James, she usually tells the fortunes of a few other girls. I didn't see this. When James has followed the Sylphide into the woods, she brings him treasures; the bird's nest that's usually one of them isn't there. I even missed the Sylphide's classic pose leaning on the window frame, immortalized in lithographs of Marie Taglioni, the original Sylphide, and replicated in countless stage productions.

Martins has cast a child in the scene in which Madge is brewing a vat of poison. She's planning to drench a scarf in it and give it to James on the pretext that it will win the Sylph for him. In fact, it will kill her and gain Madge revenge for James's rude treatment. Madge sometimes has witchy accomplices at this conjuring. When one of them is a child, a macabre humor can infect the scene of foreboding and magic. But American audiences understand children on the ballet stage as a special attraction, not as ordinary citizens, and the effect was to make a bit of a cartoon of the whole magic-brewing scene. Martins did include seven children in the charming Scottish reel that precedes Effie and James's foiled wedding. …

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