Claire Voss and Oscar Valdes in La Sylphide. Photo by Emma Fishwick
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

An enchanting escape

Review: West Australian Ballet, La Sylphide ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 18 May ·
Review by Amy Wiseman ·

Attending the ballet on Friday, I was struck by the simple joy and nostalgia of being at the theatre; the bustling “excuse-me” dance into your seat, the allure of the house curtain, the sound of a buzzing opening night crowd (many dressed in white for the occasion) and the recurring memories of countless dimming lights and opening overtures past.

Perhaps I was particularly defenceless because La Sylphide holds such weight and history for classical ballet, as one of the oldest surviving choreographies, set by August Bournonville in 1836 and passed down virtually unchanged from dancer to dancer. Marking the beginning of the Romantic era of ballet, where stories explored the supernatural, Bournonville’s style takes us back to a time of tragedy, mystical forces and temptation. La Sylphide is significant for me, personally, too – I danced in Act II in my graduation season at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

A lengthy overture, masterfully played  by West Australian Symphony Orchestra, sets the tone for La Sylphide, with rich and enticing melodies. Acting as a TARDIS, this gives us time to settle and be transported by the music, in darkness, anticipating the tale about to unfold. The curtain rises to reveal Richard Roberts’s sumptuous set, featuring an ornate chandelier, large fireplace and grand staircase. James (Gakuro Matsui) sleeps in his armchair by the fire, on the eve of his wedding to Effy (Sarah Hepburn), before being awoken by the ethereal winged Sylph (Chihiro Nomura) kneeling gracefully at his side. Transfixed, James attempts to follow her, but the elusive Sylph magically disappears.

On opening night, Bournonville’s traditional fast footwork and light ballon was wonderfully executed by the lithe Nomura, whose gorgeous arabesques and delicate port de bras channelled the era effortlessly. Her grace was matched by Matsui’s bravura, his elevation and expansive use of the space sparking cheers of enthusiasm from the audience.

Act I is fast-paced and character-driven, weaving together sweet, forbidden meetings between James and the Sylph, and lively Scottish reels that were danced with effervescence here by soloists and the corps de ballet. Christian Luck was deliciously wicked as fortune-teller Madge, who conspires to ruin everything by predicting that James’s rival Gurn (Adam Alzaim) will steal Effy’s heart. Hepburn’s Effy was at first high-spirited, accomplished and charming, but switched skilfully to convincing despair upon realising James has left her and fled to the forest; Alzaim’s innocence and crisp footwork were impressive.

Lexi De Silva’s beautiful white tulle costumes accentuate Act II. Set in a dappled forest glade, the sister sylphs gather to dance, contrasting the energy of the first half with a controlled, serene harmony. Polly Hilton as Lead Sylph had a restrained and appealing regal quality, while Carina Roberts, in the corps, was also notable for her purity of line and poise. An unintentional and tragic end sees James the victim of his own demise.

La Sylphide has a clear narrative arc and, despite its setting in the 1830s and the reliance on detailed, very particular mime, the story is remarkably accessible, with themes of desire and temptation still relevant to today’s world. Staged by noted Danish repetiteur Dinna Bjorn, the whole performance was exquisitely polished and full of charm.

With only two short acts, this is a compact, compelling production that serves as a delightful introduction to the world of ballet, or in my case, a memorable return to the form.

“La Sylphide” plays His Majesty’s Theatre until 2 June.

Pictured top: Claire Voss as the Sylph and Oscar Valdés as James in Saturday night’s performance of ‘La Sylphide’ (not the cast reviewed). Photo: Emma Fishwick.

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