It seems fair to say that James, the young Scotsman of La Sylphide, has followed Nikolaj Hübbe faithfully throughout his career. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: James was Hübbe’s first leading role after he was promoted to principal dancer at The Royal Danish Ballet in 1988, when the critics had one word for his debut: perfection. It was also the role with which he said goodbye to his Danish audience in April 2008, in an outstanding and memorable performance. And now he has returned to the stage to get his relationship with James sorted once and for all, but this time as the witch Madge.
Hübbe’s new production for The Royal Danish Ballet is radically different from the romantic setting in the Scottish highlands that we have become used to over the years. Tartan kilts, cosy living rooms and idyllic forests are a thing of the past. In line with recent calls to simplify stagings and get rid of unnecessary distractions, this production is devoid of frills and it feels as if it’s time to acknowledge that they were getting a bit rusty. La Sylphide is without a doubt August Bournonville’s most moving and timeless ballet and, while some people may be sad to see the classic theatre tricks disappear (for instance, the Sylph no longer magically flies through the window, she simply walks down some steps), the story has never been clearer than in this production.
The first act is now set in a bare grey and black environment, and while James is still dressed in a kilt, it’s a black one, with little else to suggest where the story takes place. The second act is a starkly white room, the set consisting of just two fluorescently white walls on either side of the stage. As Hübbe nonchalantly said to me in the interval, ‘It’s modelled on the Swedenborg Room’, a term coined by Danish film director Lars von Trier in his 1994 supernatural horror series The Kingdom to mean a place we all go to before we die – the waiting room of death. It’s a metaphor well suited to the only Bournonville ballet with a really tragic ending.
La Sylphide may be the name of the ballet, but the story does not belong to the Sylph. This is the story of James, a young man who is destroyed on his way to adulthood, to quote the legendary Danish dance critic Erik Aschengreen. In a company renowned for its extraordinary male dancers, James is a coveted role and, this time, three young principals were taking on the part: Ulrik Birkkjær, Alban Lendorf and Gregory Dean. I had the pleasure of seeing the last two (with Alexandra Lo Sardo and Amy Watson, respectively, as their Sylphs) when I visited Copenhagen. Lendorf has performed the role in Hübbe’s previous production, and he is an outstanding James. His dancing continues to be out of this world – those jumps! – and his acting is superb, with a highly individual passionate rawness.
British-born Gregory Dean took on the role for the first time, and his James was moving beyond words. He is vulnerable, filled with despair, and seems to genuinely doubt his own sanity at each appearance by the Sylph. As he puts himself physically between the Sylph and his fiancée Effie, it is almost as if he is trying to divide the two worlds: he wants to restore order, and thus restore his own sanity.
I asked Nikolaj Hübbe how he worked with Gregory in rehearsals:
‘Alban and Ulrik had the old version in their bodies, their muscles, but with Gregory we started from scratch. I taught him the role just as Henning [Kronstam] taught it to me: you start over here, then you do this, then you look there. We spent the first two weeks on that, and then I said: ‘Now you have the ancient structure, we’ll dissolve it all and let our imagination roam free!’ And of course we talked about the changes: the fact that Madge is now a man, and that maybe he has known James since he was a little boy, maybe he is this wealthy landowner who saw something in James, saw that he was destined for something other than just marrying Effie and becoming the next generation on his family farm. And maybe he has attempted to take James under his wing, and there has been a falling-out…’
Traditionally, Madge has always been a female witch, although the gender of the dancers portraying her has changed over the years. In 1956, Niels Bjørn Larsen took on the role and delivered a seminal interpretation, hailed as demonic and sinister, that would remain unchallenged for decades. Then in 1979, after having her career as a principal dancer cut short by health problems, a then 34-year-old Sorella Englund delivered an equally pivotal portrayal of Madge: suddenly the witch had a psychological edge to her, one that had not been there before.
Hübbe expands on the point that Madge is now a man (a very well dressed one at that) who is portrayed by two male dancers and a female: ‘I struggle with men in women’s clothes. It becomes a bit too Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for me, it becomes comical… But a woman dressed as a man becomes powerful. So that’s why I wanted Maria Bernholdt (the Madge to Lendorf’s James) to play the part: she is almost a homage to the fact that Madge used to be a woman, but played by a man. But when Sebastian Haynes (Madge in the Dean/Watson cast) and I (Madge in the Birkkjær/Grinder cast) play the role, it needs to clearly be a man played by a man. For me, Madge is an older James, which is also why I have put him in James’s chair. It is almost like saying, ‘This is my chair, you cannot have it and I want to triumph over you, to kill you!”
This, of course, is reminiscent of Johan Kobborg’s own version of La Sylphide for The Royal Ballet, where, in the final scene, the female Madge lifts her skirt slightly to reveal a bit of tutu, suggesting that she might in fact be a fallen Sylph. Perhaps the fact that the connection in Hübbe’s production is with James rather than with the Sylph explains why the moment where Madge gives James the poisonous scarf, wrapping it around him to pre-empt the way he will wrap it around the Sylph a few minutes later, has truly become a point of no return.
Hübbe adds: ‘In that moment – and I remember this from when I was dancing James – when James is given the veil, he changes. He becomes possessive, mad with power. And the way he communicates with the Sylph changes, he is hiding something and he starts demanding things of her. And of course that’s the veil. Even though he is tougher than the Sylph – clearly the Sylph is very fragile – the poison still affects him, it changes him. His mind hardens, just as the Sylph freezes in pain when the poison enters her system.’
As for what actually happens in this ballet: is James seduced by a fairy from the woods or does she only exist in his head? Hübbe makes it very clear that for him, as a dancer and as a director, the Sylph is a figment of James’s imagination, a symbol of something he wants but cannot have, perhaps even an attempt at escaping a life that he does not want. But in the end, the interpretation can be highly individual; what matters is that the outdated theatre tricks and the witches with big warts on their noses are gone, and the story is given the room it deserves. And shine it now does: an utterly tragic and timeless story of love and betrayal, despair and revenge. It’s no surprise that even after more than a quarter of a century, Nikolaj Hübbe still has a thing or two to say about James, Madge and the Sylph.
Two essays we highly recommend on James’s relationship with the Sylph:
- Marriage and The Inhuman, by Sally Banes and Noel Carroll. Essay published in Rethinking the Sylph, by Lynn Garafola.
- The Cult of the Unreal: Nodier and Romantic Monomania, by Marina van Zuylen. Essay published in Monomania, the Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art.
Heads up August Bournonville fans: led by principal Ulrik Birkkjær, Royal Danish Ballet principals and soloists perform a program with excerpts from different Bournonville works in London this week (9 to 10 January, 2015 at the Peacock Theatre). For more information and booking, visit the Sadler’s Wells website.