Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 20.
IN August Bournonville’s enduringly popular Romantic ballet, a young man dozes by a vast open fireplace and is woken by an apparition, a beautiful winged creature who kisses him. Immediately enraptured, he tries to catch her but she eludes his grasp and, in an effect that never fails to delight, disappears up the chimney but not from his thoughts.
It’s not a propitious start to his wedding day and the omens only get worse.
La Sylphide takes place in two worlds, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, although they are not entirely separate dimensions. While humans go about their cosy domesticity, supernatural forces hover, whisper and pounce. The safety of hearth and home can’t be taken for granted.
James flees the conventional future laid out for him and heads to the forest in search of his sylph and a passionate, magical life that he realises too late is unattainable. La Sylphide is a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, pitting stay-at-home ordinariness against fatal attraction.
Queensland Ballet performs La Sylphide in Peter Schaufuss’s 1979 production, which is essentially faithful to the familiar Bournonville version with some additions and alterations. Schaufuss upgrades James’s home from a Scottish farmhouse to a manor house and gives him more dancing with an extra brooding solo in Act I and a kind of interior monologue expressed as a pas de trois for James, his bride-to-be Effie and the sylph.
The trio feels unnecessary but at the opening performance there was joy in every second spent on stage by Qi Huan, plucked out of retirement by QB artistic director Li Cunxin to dance James. Qi spent nearly a decade with Royal New Zealand Ballet and now teaches at New Zealand School of Dance.
The singular Bournonville dance language is notable for its intricate footwork and floating levitations. Qi’s astonishing elevation gave him all the time in the world for multiple razor-sharp beaten steps in the air, his double tours – to left as well as right – were landed with exceptional poise and precision and the deep, deep plies Schaufuss favours were plush. Purists would undoubtedly think the latter a distortion of Bournonville stylistic modesty but they were undeniably exciting. Qi acted superbly too. His retreat from the stage is a mystery.
Not all audiences will see Qi, of course, as there are five casts for this 10-performance run. If that seems a lot, it is proof of Li’s desire to stretch as many of his dancers as possible and to challenge them in this lovely, incredibly demanding style. Not that Li was able to cast James five times from within. There is another male guest artist for the season, Luke Schaufuss, a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Peter Schaufuss’s son. The family affair is taken further: Peter’s daughter Tara dances with Queensland Ballet and while on opening night she was a featured Sylph, she is also cast as the Sylphide.
The QB men cast as James are the company’s only male principal, Hao Bin, and soloists Shane Weurthner and Camilo Ramos, the latter in his first weeks with QB. He, like the company’s new principal artist Yanela Piñera, is from National Ballet of Cuba.
I assume Li would like to get his company to the size and level at which he could confidently cast all the major works from within but that’s not done quickly or easily. It is, however, fascinating to watch the process of company building.
The first performance introduced the glamorous Piñera, who seemed a rather flesh-and-blood Sylphide as did fellow principal Clare Morehen as the Lead Sylph. Both are still feeling their way with the spirit of this radiant style, as is Weurthner, who gave a bit too much as Gurn, the man who loves and finally wins Effie.
Sarah Thompson’s sweetly glowing Effie made a strong impression and it was wonderful to see Mary Li in her element as the witch Madge, engineering James’s downfall with scarily cheerful, robust malevolence.
Some muddy horns aside, Queensland Symphony Orchestra played the Herman Lovenskjold score with verve for conductor Andrew Mogrelia, whose pacing and shaping of the overture vividly established the ballet’s quicksilver mood and themes.
La Sylphide ends on March 31.
A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 24.