Bournonville’s La Sylphide is one of the Romantic period’s most iconic ballets. Featuring a hero divided between reality and fantasy, it is filled with symbols, providing many possibilities for interpretation and parallels to our own modern lives and the choices we are forced to make everyday. The characters of James and the Sylph are treasured by The Royal Danish Ballet and its dancers, who pride themselves in keeping Bournonville’s heritage alive. Whilst in Copenhagen earlier this month we spoke to one of the pairs currently dancing these roles, Christina Michanek and Nehemiah Kish. They had a lot to say about, and gave us a lot to reflect on, one of our very favorite ballets:
First Soloist Christina Michanek is a 24-year old who trained at The Royal Danish Ballet. While still in the corps de ballet she was hand picked by Artistic Director Nikolaj Hübbe to carry the flag for a new generation of Sylphs. She has been praised for her musicality and beautiful line.
Principal Nehemiah Kish is an elegant dancer with a flair for dramatic ballets. A native of Caro, Michigan he trained in Canada’s National Ballet School. Whilst at NBC he had the opportunity to work closely with Nikolaj for the role of James. He made the move to RDB a couple of seasons ago in search of new challenges and is now dancing a broad repertoire in this legendary company.
Let’s go straight into La Sylphide. How do you see your respective characters, how do they feel about each other?
Christina: The Sylph is completely in love. James is the most beautiful man she has ever seen and she thinks about him all the time. She just wants to be in the same room as him and as it’s the night before his wedding she knows that it’s now or never. That’s why she decides to take another step into his world and wake him up instead of only being there when he is sleeping, lurking around the corner. She decides to finally approach him. So yes, she feels head over heels in love.
Nehemiah: It’s James’s wedding day and I think perhaps he has cold feet. He’s a bit nervous and then he sees the Sylph. She represents everything that perhaps goes against the family structure and the life within that sort of community. She represents something completely free, something ideal and innocent and beautiful and I just think he wants to free himself from the restrictions.
Why do you think James is so ready to trust the witch Madge?
Nehemiah: Of course James is completely against Madge and he is furious when he sees her. I think he feels she knows what’s going on inside him, like she can see right through his core and it’s sort of bothering him. That makes him nervous and frustrated with her and he wants her to leave. I don’t think he is so willing to trust her, I think that on the second act when he finally does it’s more that he wants to be close to the Sylph at whatever cost. He is completely on a trance and he sees the scarf. If that’s the only way he can get close to her, then nothing else matters and for the moment he completely forgets who Madge is and all he sees is this opportunity to get close to the Sylph. It just overwhelms him and takes over…
Christina: … it could it also be the magic of the scarf, so that when you see it you just want it. And if James really wants it so much, then for the Sylph it will be the same thing.
How has your portrayal of the Sylph evolved since your debut in 2006, when you were still in the corps de ballet?
Christina: When I did it the first time I took everything very literally. When she was happy, she was happy and then she was sad… She was really going through those emotions. I also played her a bit more innocent than I do it now. I now know that she has a plan, that her goal is not just to be with him in the moment but she enters the room intent on taking him with her out in the woods. So that makes her… not cunning because I always find that she is not “human”, she has instincts so she is not “sly as a fox”, but she has a plan. It always has to do with what she wants. There is no wrong or right but a bit more plotting.
We have seen some interpretations which emphasise her “innocence” and others her “mischief” but you think it’s beyond that, she is not human, she is instinctive…
Christina: … I think she runs around in the woods with all the animals and they kill and they have kids and she is like [makes kooky noise], flying with the birds and then she is hunting with the wolves. She will do it all. Not only with pretty things. There is nothing wrong with that so I don’t think she is evil, she just does whatever she wants, so in that way I guess she is spoiled because she is so strong, no one ever stops her so whenever she wants something that’s what’s going to happen.
Nehemiah: [agreeing] and I think James is happy to do whatever she tells him to do. If she tells him to sit, he will sit!
You had danced James before at NBC working with Nikolaj at that time. How has your James changed since then?
Nehemiah: I guess I try to ground James more in reality now. I think that’s important. To me the Sylph is pure innocence, beauty and everything that’s good and Madge is everything that’s bad. There is a great contrast and then James is just human reality and there’s all the stuff he is going through, his wedding, whatever anxieties he has. I try to make him more of a real person than when I was a bit younger and I was trying to find my way, my voice in the ballet. Perhaps I played him more as a princely type guy, not a prince exactly but sort of noble. But now I find him more grounded, more earthly. A real man. Not necessarily a great man, not even necessarily a good man.
Can you describe what it was like to cope with such a responsibility when you debuted in this major Bournonville work?
Christina: It was such a weird thing. I remember after the first rehearsal, as soon as Nikolaj and the pianist left the room I just did a little scream and I jumped as soon as I thought that they were out of range! It is so strange as an experience. It is “THE Ballet” and all the little girls dream about doing this part, usually we would do it up in our dressing room as we heard the show going on, we were out in the back doing the same things. And then suddenly being allowed to do the mime and the steps in an actual performance… It was amazing, wonderful. It took a while for it all to sink in but you just have to put that thought away and start working.
Dream come true?
Christina: [enthusiastically] Oh Yes!
Nehemiah, what has this historical Bournonville company given you as a dancer?
Nehemiah: Well, it has taught me that these Bournonville ballets are still completely alive, they are completely valid to everything you do today, the ballet world, the art world. Sometimes they can be danced in a comical way, but there is really something that’s human in all of them and especially La Sylphide. It’s my favourite. I think the entire ballet is really well crafted. I don’t want to say that we do things better than other companies but the seriousness here, it’s really inspiring.
How much do you stay true to the way the ballet was taught to you and how much can you bring of your own without polluting the style?
Christina: I find that most of these things have to be found out on the studio, while we rehearse over and over again and try the same scenes with different approaches and different instructors. That’s when we find the right way and how far can you go. They will say “that’s too much” or “that’s good” or “that you can explore more” and then you know what they want.
Nehemiah: I think sometimes it surprises you how far can you take it. I think it’s really hard to go too far… Especially with these ballets. They are so dramatic and the movement is so free in Bournonville and in a lot of cases the further you go, the better.
Christina: [giggling] I did one thing… one thing that was too much! Right the first time, right before I run around James’s chair and I start jumping… it got out of hand. I don’t know if Nikolaj [Hübbe] would agree actually, I haven’t found out!
You are dancing with 2 different Jameses this season, Nehemiah and Marcin Kupinski. How do you adjust your performance to match them?
Christina: It happens as soon as they wake up from the chair and we look at each other for the first time. You look at each other and you react. Of course I know what I want to do: I want to take him with me out and I want to show him how carefree my world is, that going with me is absolutely “choice no. 1 and the best thing to do” but, it’s always look and react. If I say something and my partner doesn’t react, then I actually haven’t said anything…
Nehemiah, what motivated you to leave National Ballet of Canada a couple of years ago and join The Royal Danish Ballet? How are you adapting?
Nehemiah: My motivation to come here had a lot to do with Nikolaj taking over the company, and also the opportunity of being onstage and dancing in a theatre with so much history and to grow as an artist, as a dancer.
It’s a different schedule certainly. We do quite a few more performances than I did in Canada, but that was what really attracted me to the company, one of the main reasons for me to come. Adapting has been fine, everyone has been generous.
What have been the biggest challenges in your careers so far?
Christina: I think classes probably! Because when it comes to telling stories and a ballet that I know as well as La Sylphide, that’s easy. Maybe Giselle was much more difficult because I didn’t know it that well, but I think classes are a big challenge, the discipline, getting your body in the position. Every morning.
Nehemiah: I guess for me it was coming here! I was happy to come but of course it has all kinds of challenges, and when I joined I was just thrown in immediately. The first show I did was La Sylphide with the company when we went on tour to China and I wasn’t supposed to go on the tour. I’d planned on settling into Copenhagen and maybe learning a bit more Danish and then they needed me to fill in for someone who was injured.
So the first two weeks I was working on La Sylphide and dancing in China with Christina. And then when I came back, I was working on Giselle with Silja Schandorff, a major ballerina in the house. It was a lot of responsibility for me and a lot of pressure in that regard. I wanted to do my best for her and also represent myself as best as I can because I had not yet shown myself in the scene so it was a challenge, but it’s good to challenge yourself.
What are your favorite roles and your dream roles?
Nehemiah: There are a lot of favorites! Onegin is perhaps one of the nicest roles and Albrecht. There are also a lot of ballets I wish I could dance, ballets like Ashton’s A Month in the Country and Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias. I did have the opportunity to dance Solor [La Bayadère] in Spain last summer and that was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed that.
Christina: I would like to be able to do John Neumeier’s A Little Mermaid but I don’t know if I am physically suited. It would be a great challenge, I absolutely love that ballet. My favourite ballets to perform are [Neumeier's] Romeo and Juliet and La Sylphide, those two I love.
Are there any choreographers you would like to work with or projects you would like to do in the future?
Nehemiah: This will be my first time working with John Neumeier [for Midsummer’s Night Dream] when he comes next week, so that’s exciting.
Last year I went back to Canada and I did The Nutcracker and Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet. And in the summer I danced with Angel Corella’s Company in Spain in La Bayadère. That was wonderful but it was a matter of being in Europe and being here at the right time. Things happen just by being here, the community is closer but in terms of looking for projects, I find myself doing less now that I am here, because our repertoire is wonderful and sometimes if you want to do other projects then you have to take the decision to take yourself out of certain things in the rep. It is very difficult to agree to do something elsewhere and then not be able to maybe work with, say, John Neumeier. Those are tough decisions to make. But if I have the time and the opportunity I grab it.
Christina: I went down to Madrid a couple of months ago, really beautiful city, I’d never been there before, to guest in a Julio Bocca gala. I would love to do more of that. I danced La Sylphide and then we danced John Neumeier’s Yesterday, we thought that would be fun because there is a bit of La Sylphide and that was very “John” of us to have that little thing in there!
What’s in your ballet bags?
Christina: [revealing the contents of her colourful bag] iPhone, scissors, I forgot my hammer but I usually have it as well… first aid kit in case you get blisters. Big knife of course! Pointe shoes, second skin, needle and thread, more shoes…the regular stuff!
Nehemiah: [checking inside his stylish monochromatic bag] Yes, mine is not so interesting. Water, some warmups and… iPhone.