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Review: Los Angeles Ballet 'La Sylphide'

May 17, 2009 |  3:45 pm

La Sylphide

Try summing up the themes of August Bournonville’s romantic 1836 ballet, “La Sylphide.” You might get a list something like this: Dreams, illusions, ideals versus reality and worse — irrational, implacable evil. No wonder the ballet survives, not only to entertain but to trouble, even deeply disturb.

Los Angeles Ballet, founded in 2006, marked its latest stage of artistic growth by mounting a handsome production of “La Sylphide” Saturday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, with period sets and costumes borrowed from the Houston Ballet. (Performances continue over the next two weekends at other venues.) (Freud Playhouse, UCLA, May 23 and 24, and at the Alex Theater in Glendale, May 30.)

The story is simple. James, a Scottish highlander, dreams of a magical, otherworldly creature, the Sylph, on the very day of his wedding to his beloved Effie. Suddenly incarnate, the Sylph lures James away from the wedding and into the forest. There, she inexplicably appears and disappears at will, always managing to stay just out of his grasp.

La Sylphide2 James and the Sylph soon meet their destruction, however. James has deeply though mindlessly offended the witch Madge earlier during the wedding day. Now, seeking to bring his ideal Sylph into his arms, he drapes a veil he doesn’t know has been poisoned by Madge over the Sylph’s shoulders and winds it around her arms. The Sylph immediately loses her wings, comes to earth and quickly dies. James is stunned and collapses in grief.

As danced Saturday by Eddy Tovar, a permanent LAB guest from Orlando Ballet, James was a bewildered dreamer, torn between the Sylph and Effie. He was also impulsive, flaring  into outraged anger upon seeing Madge warming herself by the fire. A handsome, compact dancer, Tovar had the strength and style to execute Bournonville’s demanding foot beats with speed and clarity.

Corina Gill was the poised, ethereal Sylph, balancing lightly and cleanly in high extensions. Her most arresting moments, however, came in her death scene, where she seemed to lose the power of sight as well as of flight.

The other plum role, of course, is the evil Madge. She is first discovered cowering by James’ fire but is last seen towering triumphantly above his body. Why did she wreck such evil, so out of proportion to the original offense? Her answer is a drumming of her fingers on her chest. “I,” “I,” “I,” she gestures, because James offended her.

The ballet ends with a terrible image. Madge pulls the fallen James up by the hair to see his beloved but dead Sylph float up into the heavens. With insouciant flicks of her wrists, Madge then dismisses James’ lifeless form. All in a day’s work, she seems to say, and easy work at that. Final curtain.

Co-artistic director Colleen Neary, a former New York City Ballet principal, made a formidable Madge, only gradually revealing her malevolent powers. It was easy to laugh at her mumbo-jumbo antics with her four witch friends around the black cauldron at the start of Act 2. But nobody was laughing at the end of the ballet.

In other roles, Grace McLoughlin danced Effie with sweet innocence. James Li was Gurn, James’ best friend, a naïf who winds up marrying Effie after James’ disappearance. (Peter Snow will take over the role in two of the three remaining performances.) Andrew Brader and Drew Grant were the friends.

The corps, including the children, danced strongly. Melissa Barak, the First Sylph, gave notice of incipient major Sylph duties. The ballet, staged by co-artistic director Thordal Christensen, a former principal with the Royal Danish Ballet, was danced to pre-recorded music.

--Chris Pasles

Captions: Eddy Tovar and Corina Gill in Los Angeles Ballet's "La Sylphide." Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

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