Tangled Up in Plaid

If I were to write a book called “100 Ballets to See Before You Die” (perhaps there’s a market for that?), La Sylphide would certainly be one of my top 10 picks. It’s a ballet that digs deep, that still has much to say 174 years on. It centers on the pursuit of one’s dreams vs. the harsh reality of life, as James’s bid for the elusive but irresistible Sylph put him on a collision path with bigger forces. In daring to pursue what’s unattainable James manages to destroy everything that was real.

Susanne Grinder as The Sylph and Ulrik Birkkjær as James in The Royal Danish Ballet's production of La Sylphide. Photo: Henrik Stenberg / RDB ©

Having in vain crossed my fingers for a revival of Johan Kobborg’s beautiful production at Covent Garden it was time to chase our own Sylphs a little further afield. So we set off for Copenhagen to catch La Sylphide danced by The Royal Danish Ballet, the company it was created on. It is a delight to see the Bournonville tradition alive and well; to marvel at dancing which is light, effortless and mime which is so blended with the dance you never feel the action stops. This you notice from the moment the curtains open and Christina Michanek’s Sylph dances out her love for James asleep in his chair.  With the softest, loveliest arms she expresses her feelings towards him. In one moment they express caution, hesitation as she gestures that “all is quiet”, but soon her whole body expresses a great urge to tell James about her feelings so she finally rushes to awaken him.

She truly meets her match in Nehemiah Kish’s impulsive James. Kish plays one of ballet’s most tormented characters – for male dancers in Denmark the equivalent of Hamlet for an actor – as an equally instinctive being. Not necessarily a likeable person, his James is human and flawed. He emphasises the character’s changeable moods, showing us someone who’s equally overpowered by passion for the mysterious Sylph and hatred for the haggard Madge. James selfishly disregards the feelings of his fiancée, friends and family and let his instincts take over reason. This is what ultimately leads him to tragedy.

Alexander Stæger as Gurn in The Royal Danish Ballet's production of La Sylphide. Photo: David Amzallag / RDB ©

Their dancing is also strong. Kish is a big jumper. He flies and zips through Bournonville’s intricate turns and beaten steps with elegance and grace. His Act 2 solo “aims high”; it really is an expression of joy and brief release from reality and the pressures of this world. Michanek’s Sylph is an adorable, delicate creature and at both performances we attended she had us gushing and endlessly raving about her lightness and her manner of letting the dance breathe. They were complemented by Alexander Stæger‘s excellent Gurn, another big jumper who flies the Bournonville flag with pride.

For those expecting anything akin to Sorella Englund‘s truly sinister Madge (thankfully immortalised on DVD), Eva Kloborg’s more subdued, different portrayal may prove anticlimatic. She’s great during the fortune-telling scene, something in her interpretation suggesting it is all faked, all a well staged game to bring about James’s misfortune. But once she manages to destroy the Sylph and James she seems neither triumphant nor remorseful. Perhaps this is just another day for a Madge who is used to eating Jameses & Sylphs for breakfast. Still, I would have liked to get a sense of her own motivations, hate? jealousy? Then again, that’s what I love about this ballet: different interpretations, endless possibilities. It feels fresh every time.

Kristoffer Sakurai as James and Artists of The Royal Danish Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne / RDB ©

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.


  • [...] of our 100 Ballets to See Before You Die, La Sylphide, as seen by the lenses of photographer Alice Pennefather, who also captured [...]

  • February 25, 2010

    Symphony in C - Review

    [...] ballet-master who shaped the Company, its style (the closest to 19th century French school) and its unique repertoire. But thanks to globalization and a young Artistic Director fresh from the NYCB rosters, the company [...]