Peter Martins believes that “La Sylphide” is the ultimate ballet.
Choreographed in 1836 by August Bournonville, the father of classical Danish dance, the Romantic ballet is the first one a young Martins ever saw. As a student at the Royal Danish Ballet School, he danced it as a child.
And later, after dancing with New York City Ballet for a time, he returned to Denmark to perform the lead role of James, the betrothed Scotsman who falls desperately in love with a fairy on the eve of his wedding.
New York City Ballet
WHEN: July 7 to 18 with matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs
TICKETS: Evenings: $87-$35. Lawn, $24. Matinees: $45, $35. Lawn: $15
MORE INFO: 584-9330, www.spac.org
This past season, when Martins decided to stage “La Sylphide” for New York City Ballet, he didn’t change a thing.
“Arguably, it’s the best ballet,” said Martins who is the Ballet Master-in-Chief at New York City Ballet.
“It is familiar to generations of Danish dancers, but not to many of the dancers here. I wanted to stage it for that reason. But I didn’t change a thing. It’s exactly how Bournonville choreographed it. The only thing I did was take out the intermission. But the choreography is too good to alter. I could not make it better.”
The family-friendly ballet will be a favorite with audiences this upcoming New York City Ballet season at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Premiering in the second week of the two-week run, it has it all — production values and costumes that dazzle and a story that sweeps its viewers away with a narrative about unattainable love, destructive jealousy and the evil it can spawn.
Of course, there is also the dancing. City Ballet’s extraordinary principals imbue the main characters with magic, allowing one to suspend disbelief in fanciful sylphs and creepy witches.
And then there are the children, many of whom were selected from local ballet studios, who frolic in the first act, making for a celebratory scene on the morning of James’ wedding.
The wedding doesn’t happen — at least not for James — whose folly ends in tragedy.
The premiere of “La Sylphide” will add to the overall luster of the season, which also includes premieres from Alexei Ratmansky and two from Justin Peck.
This season will feel especially jubilant, as New York City Ballet returns for two weeks, after two years on an abbreviated one-week stay. Martins said it’s “tremendously good news.”
He is also happy that the company will perform for yet another two weeks in 2016, which will mark its 50th anniversary in Saratoga Springs. That year, SPAC will commission a new ballet from Peck, City Ballet’s resident choreographer.
But before we jump ahead to next year, let’s return to 2015, when “La Sylphide” will be appropriately paired with a condensed version of “Bournonville Divertissements,” a pleasant best of Bournonville. Originally conceived by Stanley Williams, the famed Bournonville teacher at the City Ballet’s own School of American Ballet, the vignettes are drawn from Danish classics: “The Flower Festival in Genzano,” “Abdallah” and “Napoli.”
Being Danish-born and trained, Martins’ affinity for Bournonville is natural. What might be surprising is that George Balanchine, the founder of New York City Ballet, also greatly admired the Dane. It was at Balanchine’s bidding that “Bournonville Divertissements” was choreographed in 1977.
And for years, Balanchine invited Danish dancers, including Martins, to supplement his very American company. While the practice has dropped off, and only one Dane remains (Ask LaCour), the influence lingers.
“Balanchine loved Bournonville,” said Martins. “One day, I asked him why. And he said, ‘He entertained with steps.’ That’s a quote.”
But those steps are quite different from the Balanchine technique. His approach was more about line. It was straightforward, off-balance and played out at lightning speed.
Bournonville, on the other hand, concentrated on intricate petite allegro (small jumps), a diagonal epaulement (the placement of the shoulders), approachable mannerisms and, in the case of “La Sylphide,”
“The footwork is fast, a lot of beats and small jumps,” said Martins. “That wasn’t hard for the dancers. What was a challenge was the mime. It’s very specific to storytelling.”
Storytelling or not, Martins believes, the Bournonville technique “makes dancers better.” And he clearly feels that his dancers have absorbed the technique brilliantly.
So did Wall Street Journal critic Robert Greskovic, who wrote that the principal dancers “proved variously memorable and at times impressive.” New York Times dance writer Alastair Macaulay said the Bournonville ballets’ “ideas remain fresh and modern in these dances; and the program shows how today’s performers are challenged, focused and refreshed by them.”
And like the ballets themselves, they inspire joy. The dancing is so buoyant, natural, and musical that the audience is easily carried away by its graceful charm.
“Balanchine used to say there are two great choreographers, [Marius] Petipa and Bournonville,” said Martins. “Bournonville is not as recognized as Petipa. Hopefully, that will change. But I think the great thing about Bournonville is there is a sense of joy in dancing for dancing’s sake.”