Auguste Vestris


Critiques / Reviews

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Reckless the Man!
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La Sylphide (Lacotte/Taglioni)
28 June 2004

Printable version / Version imprimable   |  1719 visits / visites

Re-Premiere (June 28th 2004)

"It was La Sylphide, that changed me. It gave me so much, not only the dancing, but also the mime, because you could go so deep into the mime and the gestures. The pressure inside, to do a gesture, is the same for me as doing a good step. It must come from within and go outward. I was lucky, because the Danish television filmed my performances of James twice; they were shewn on the television against recently, and I felt that it had been right, that the audience could grasp what I thought and felt. It was a very great thing to dance James. Every time I dance it, it gave me so much."

Flemming Ryberg, Interview, 1994

"In La Sylphide, of course she has eyes, and she has to use her eyes, like Mona Lisa, where you don’t know what is what - well, she is smiling, but she is sorry, in her eyes. What is it ? It’s mystery. So James is going with her out to the wood, because he wants to see what is that. And that’s also, jumping ahead, in art, when you can shew something in your dance, and in your art, there is mystery. And something that you have to go back to, because there was something that you didn’t really get an answer. Or maybe, it was so much an answer, that you have to see it again. When you love someone, you have to hear, all the time, that he will say ’Oh, I love you, I love you’, you cannot get enough of it. So that’s the same thing. So you have to use your eyes, and also the hands. (…)

And it’s not the steps, which are telling anything. You just have to do them, because it’s ballet. But in fact, you could stand still, and tell the whole story. (…) when you are dancing a role, you have to forget about the steps, you have to make the audience forget about the steps, because it’s not that, where there is the point. The point is, to tell the story. To tell them something completely different, than steps, or technique.

(…) "Bournonville is about beauty and love. If you love your work, if you know what love of the work is, love of the music, love of what you have to tell the audience, that is it."

Lis Jeppesen, Interview, 1988


For those not "au fait" with the local folklore, this night, July 1st, was Matthew Ganio’s d&eacutebut as James, in the run-up to which the lad - appointed&eacutetoile May 20th at the age of nineteen or twenty - has been given the Spice Girls treatment by the French media. Prime time television news on TF1, half-pagers in the Sunday newspapers, cover-story in the trade press….

Now, in the Danish Theatre until very recent decades, people were used to be appointed "solo dancer" -&eacutetoile - at the END of their career. It was a homage paid by the Royal Theatre and by the Danish people, to men and women who in service to the art form, had gone well beyond the call of duty.

To tell the truth, last night I was bored - politely bored, but bored nonetheless.

Don’t get me wrong - I’ve got nothing against Matthew Ganio. He seems a sweet-natured, kindly boy. He works hard, and he’s quite a nice dancer.

But, no, Matthew Ganio is not a genius, this is not Gardel, Nikolai Legat and Poul Gnatt all rolled up into one tidy parcel, and in the boy’s own interest, we should all cool it, pronto. He is too young for such roles, and too young to be Adored. As a noted pianist has just put it, in a recent interview on teenie-boppers who insist upon playing Beethoven’s last sonatas,"Mich interessiert nicht, wie Kinder philosophieren".

Although Management is, to be sure, human, and as such, is perfectly entitled to be besotted with X, Y or Z and to favour them in casting (and were I running a Theatre, I should no doubt besottedly favour some as well), at the end of the day, the classical dance is an objective art form. Otherwise, let’s rustle up a party, and turn the Op&eacutera Garnier into an Opium Den.

We are dancing for the public, we are dancing to educate, enlighten and improve the public, not to settle internal disputes or create TV personalities. The public must be given to reflect on the BEST we’ve got in this theatre. Which begs the question, where IS our Prince ?

Be that as it may, and always one to plan a century or so ahead, Schumann doubtless penned his rhapsodic Ebro Caudaloso prefiguring the gentleman’s late Iberian adventure, but the question remains nevertheless, Where IS Emmanuel Thibault ? Musing amongst the rocks at Pontevedra ? Bring that man back next week after his stint inRubies at Madrid, and let him to dance James !

Whither the thingimajiggies ?

Beyond Good, Mlle. Aur&eacutelie Dupont as the Sylph, who has left one reeling from the shock of her technique. In her own discreet but determined way, Mlle. Dupont has actually improved upon our own P. Lacotte, by doing away with all those horrid, twee little crook-elbow wrist-flicking thingimajiggies that Taglioni undoubtedly never used, and replacing the lot with proper ports de bras. Her footwork must be seen to be believed. Admirable, a thousand times admirable ! One found the cry "Brava !" literally torn from one’s throat.

BEG BORROW OR STEAL a ticket to see the woman, because this sort of technique don’t grow on trees.

This writer has seen a number of celebrated Sylphs, but - so far - only two remain with me: Lis Jeppesen, and Elisabeth Maurin. The Dane, Lis Jeppesen, was a half-smiling figurine of a divinity come to life, alighting from some place in the universe where ideas are formed. Tears spring to the eyes at the thought of it, and it was twenty years ago. And that devilish spirit of contradiction Mlle. Maurin, spurring men on to do and dare, her adorable blue eye darting sparks, like fireflies into the night.

Mlle. Dupont may not be there yet, but she has potential, and a capacity for work very rare in the world today. Let us all take the time to ponder over the quality of abstraction, the depth and sheer intensity of work, that yields the technical accomplishments we saw last night. And her originality ! The French stage is NOT one, at the present time, where mezzo-tint dancing is esteemed. As Mlle. Dupont has herself stated, we are in a Theatre where every movement, every articulation is ground to an extreme. But, amongst the many beauties in her work last night, notably a careful eschewal of excessively large, gaping figures, she has dared to dance the very rapid passages as one would have done in the 19th century, as a TRAJECTORY, skimming over the ground with the torso engaged, and the foot and leg almost relaxed.

What Mlle. Dupont did here, is the precise equivalent of declaiming a passage in Sheakespeare meant to be taken very quickly, without ever losing the metric structure of the discreet foot (in dancing, this would correspond to the steps), though letting that wiry metric fade into the background. This prevents the parsing from taking over to become an asinine sing-song.

Was it, however, poetry ? Question.

That is why, with the reader’s permission, there appear the two lengthy quotes from our Danish colleagues, above.

Or, what is the whole play about ?

We have two versions of the Sylphide in the world’s repertoire today. One, by Auguste Bournonville to a score by Loevenskjold, dating from about 1836, and that he worked on throughout his life until his death in 1879. It is thus, in a way, his artistic testament.

Contrary to what you will read in the newspapers, Bournonville’s Sylphide is a salvo of artillery fire against the Romantics’ egomaniac world outlook, from precisely the same standpoint as Heinrich Heine.

And it is barely one hour long, amongst the most highly-focused and intense poetic statements ever composed.

Fear of the Bratkartoffel ?

The story-line could not be simpler: On the eve of his wedding, James, a young laird, dreading the Bratkartoffel mediocrity of married life, sits alone and dreams on before the fire. A vision appears to him, the Sylph. What can it be ? As he springs towards her, she vanishes up the chimney. The Scene changes, and villagers press in to see him wed. Oppressed by dreams, unsettled by a travelling Witch or Soothsayer, James cannot focus in the Here and Now upon Effie his bride. In the midst of the rejoicings, the Sylph appears to pluck the betrothal ring from James’ finger, and breathes in his ear - Follow me ! He tears from Effie, leaving her with his rival Gurn, to follow after the Sylph into the forest.

In the forest of the Unknown, the Sylph appears only to vanish here, there and everywhere, one amongst many. In his endeavour to possess the creature that is no creature, James "sells his soul" to the Witch that he has spurned in Act I, for a scarf to bind the Sylph to him. The Sylph is quite willing to play with the scarf, to float it upon the air, to frolic with it, but the moment James attempts to bind her, her wings fall, and she dies. The ballet ends with Effie, Gurn and a throng of villagers celebrating the couple’s wedding in the glen.

But the storyline, is not the idea.

Put very roughly, the idea behind Bournonville’s Sylph, is this. The Sylph is a metaphor for pure creativity. A substance without substance, but innate in the mind. Though it take a thousand forms, the spark ever remains, never to be grasped in the flesh. The moment James shuns reality, and "flees out into the forest" of romantic Unreason, seeking to possess that carefree, playful spirit of pure mind as though it were a material and carnal being, the spirit withers and slips away.

Unfortunately, Bournonville’s Sylphide is never danced in France.

The version held at the French National Theatre is that of Pierre Lacotte, which he reconstructed in 1973 on the basis of the Schneitzhoeffer score and Filippo Taglioni’s manuscripts in the Theatre library.

The Lacotte/Taglioni version is extremely problematic. Its score is, first and foremost, far too long. The ballet is well over twice as long as the Bournonville version. And it has less to say. The thing Ging Lost in an orgy of line dancing, diagonal dancing, trios, soli, pas de deux, people climbing all over each other here there and everywhere…And the Scots dancers on pointe, amongst other puzzling events of that ilk.

As for the philosophical point, well, it lies buried under kilometres of plaid, tulle and gauze.

There are too many steps. Allow me to state this for the Umpteenth time: dancing is supposed to be FUN. Not only for the public, but, believe it or not, for the dancers ! Could we PLEASE stop piling on the difficulties ? It is far, far more important for the dancer to be able to focus on what’s happening in the orchestra pit, than to cram in three more steps for each bar of music.

Now, M. Lacotte will undoubtedly object that "it’s all in the manuscript". Well, maybe t’is, and maybe t’aint.

What I mean is the following.

Mummy, how do I look in this ?

In Taglioni’s day, people danced with &eacutepaulement, not Rigor Mortis the way most of us do today. The body being fully engaged, they were more mobile, and thus much faster. Neither the knee, nor the foot, was necessarily always fully stretched in allegro work; they were wont to dance in such passages out of third, rather than fifth; they took pirouettes on the cou de pied, and so forth, all of which means that they could get up to white-hot speed, and whatever the conductor threw at them from the pit, they’d catch and run. All highly technical, but in a quite, quite different way. A music-based approach, rather than our present "Mummy, How do I Look in This ?" display.

So, compared to today’s tempi, they’d literally be tearing through their variations, more or less at the tempi indicated by the composer (a trifling detail, nowaydays) and the conductor would be there cheering ’em on ! Incidentally, with the old tempi, we stood more of a chance at keeping a ballet-orchestra awake, but, as our American friends would say, We don’t go There Today.

Anyway, what M. Lacotte has tried to do, is to reconcile our own Martinet-like obsession with getting those legs up, and with Mechanical Perfection, to steps written down at a time when the classical dance was an explosion of joy and untrammelled musicality.

Ride’em cowgirl !

Bournonville had a clear purpose in staging the Scots dances: to form a counter-point to the world of the Sylphs, and their way of being.

In his ballet, pointe-work belongs to the Sylphs. Bournonville has the Scots women in shoes or soft slippers, never pointes. He recorded the national dances of every nation he visited, and used them very effectively elsewhere too (Cf. Knud Arne Juergensen’s "Photographic Record" of his ballets, with photographs that go back as far as 1841).

The Scotsmen in their dances push and press INTO the ground, whereas, the Sylphs press OFF the ground. In Bournonville’s Act I, the Sylph flits, unreal amongst the revellers in the Scots reel. Grimly comic, however, is Lacotte’s pas de trois, with the Sylph hitching up her skirts to clamber up onto James back. RIDE’EM Cowgirl !

By turning the Scots dances into a whirl of balletic tours de force, M. Lacotte has muddied their purpose. And what to say of the kilt-clad men, high-kicking like male chorus girls ? Radio City Music Hall, here’s novelty for you !

A telling instance of how casually the Lacotte version deals with mime and dramaturgy, is the "unimportant" scene where the bride Effie is given flowers.

Flowers in those parts, were (and still are) rare and costly, even for a laird. But, bearing outsize bouquets, the girls stomp up to Effie, performing the self-same gesture at the self-same beat on the music, to thrust the flowers at Effie as though they’d just been bought at Boots the Chemists.

Worse still, the Abandonment scene. This is the year 1804, or thereabouts, in the dark Highlands. Neither the man, nor especially the woman, would live much beyond the age of forty. Marriage was deadly serious, and no going back.

Should a girl’s engagement be broken, she would likely be spurned as shop-soiled goods by every man in the village. When James flees out into the forest, Effie’s reputation and thus her life, may well be ruined. She, and her mother, collapse in rage, grief and despair, while the villagers are scarcely less dismayed.

In the Paris version, Effie looks round the stage as though missing her beau at a cocktail-dînatoire. She tosses a glance out the portal, sees He has Gone, and petulantly casts down her bouquet in a pretty little fit - has someone just spilt wine on her party frock ? - only to be consoled by Mumsy in thirty seconds flat.

Put another way, this Sylphide can be salvaged, but it will take some heavy pruning.


Our Effie on this night, the lovely M&eacutelanie Hurel, whose mime and acting was every bit as fresh, as focused and delightful as her dancing. This writer is on tenterhooks awaiting her d&eacutebut as the Sylph on July 9th.


And here ends the last of the classical Seasons at the Paris Opera, under current Management. As of September, the French National Theatre is to become a giant playpen for those who seem to regret their nappies, yes, playpen to the bouncing babies of "Modern" Dance.

Forming a singularly appropriate backcloth, huge fishnets are hung over the Opera Bastille, to prevent the tiled façade from flying down upon the unwary. Around the Opera Garnier, recently the object of one of the costliest refurbishment programmes in Paris history, crash barriers have just been erected, bearing signs that read "Beware, Falling Stones". Inside the building, as tourists gape at the grotesquely gilt and gold Foyer, itself freshly-restored at untold expense, on the upper floors, hidden from public view, Internet reports tell us that the rehearsal studios lack proper ventilation, so that by the summer, temperatures soar to over forty degrees.

Heat, fatigue and dehydration - scythe-wielding horsemen ?

Now, Schadenfreude - rejoicing at others’ discomfiture - may be a sentiment widespread in politics, but one declines, very firmly, to apply it to art. Accordingly, and although injury at high ranks in the Paris Opera Ballet will allow us the joy of seeing a great deal more of Emmanuel Thibault this coming year, the sorry truth remains that of the company’s six or seven premiers danseurs still on active duty, Messrs. Belingard, Moreau and Carbone are all out - for several months it seems - injured. And all of them under the age of thirty.

Now, the company’s publicity brochures read:

"One of the world’s youngest troupes"

"The average age - roughly twenty-five - makes it one of the world’s youngest troupes."

Reading between the lines, this gives:

"By the age of twenty-five, people are either injured out, or so demoralised by the conditions prevailing in the profession, that they pack up their toys and games and clear out. In the New, and Out with the Old !"

Were this state of affairs to be confined to the Paris Opera, one could simply blame Management, as usual. It happens to be an epidemic, world-wide.

"Halfway through rehearsal, my back started to hurt. I had a small crack in my vertebrae and had to take the rest of the season off."

[Six months in a back brace.]

Misty Copeland (then aged 22), in Newsday, May 2003

"The first half of City Ballet’s ’Balanchine 100: The Centennial Celebration’ is winding down (…) and not a moment too soon. A few more bad ankles and there won’t be anyone left to dance. Consider: Wendy Whelan, Jennie Somogyi, Sofiane Sylve and Janie Taylor have been out all or much of the season"

R. Gottlieb, in theNew York Observer, February 2004

"I feel guilty about pulling out just before the season, but the pain was telling me that it was time to stop while I still had my dignity."

In his 13-year career, van der Wyst reckons he was absent from the stage for a total of three years due to injuries."

Geon van der Wyst (aged 32) in the Toronto Globe & Mail, February 2004

Although dancers today study longer, and harder, than at any other time in history, careers have never been shorter. Only in the field of Statistics, are there to be found Effects, without a Cause. As the new season opens before us, search for that elusive little elf Cause may prove to be time well spent.

K.L. Kanter