Dark victory

Boston Ballet in Serenade and La Sylphide
October 31, 2007 5:40:48 PM

SERENADE: Warning signals, disappearing dancers.

Serenade and La Sylphide | Serenade: Music by Peter Tchaikovsky | Choreography by George Balanchine | Costumes by Karinska | La Sylphide: Music by Herman Severin Løvenskiold | Choreography by Sorella Englund, after August Bournonville | Set and costumes by Peter Cazalet | Lighting by Karim Badwan | with the Boston Ballet Orchestra Conducted by Jonathan MCphee | Presented by Boston Ballet at The Wang Theatre through October 28
“El Boston Ballet deslumbra” (“Boston Ballet dazzles”), exclaimed Madrid’s El Pais, Spain’s biggest daily newspaper. “L’apotheosi del romanticisme” (“The apotheosis of romanticism”), chimed in Barcelona’s El Periódico. They were reviewing Boston Ballet’s performance of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide at the Castell de Peralada Festival this past August, part of a six-week tour of Spain — and it didn’t hurt that the company featured its Hispanic dancers, notably Carlos Molina and Lorna Feijóo at Peralada. Now it’s our turn to be dazzled as Boston Ballet opens its subscription season with a well-rehearsed performance of one of the oldest (1836) classics in the ballet repertory. La Sylphide is a short two acts — not much more than an hour — and the company is pairing it with George Balanchine’s Serenade (1934-’77), which it also took to Spain. (The last time Boston Ballet staged La Sylphide, in March 2005, the piece went stag; before that, in October 1988, it was preceded by Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, which the company will do again in May.)

It’s a good pairing: together, Serenade and La Sylphide write an essay on doomed love. Serenade sends out warning signals from its opening tableau — 17 women all with right arm extended and hand flexed — and yet by the end of Tchaikovsky’s sportive Sonatina, a man and a woman have hooked up. They gambol in the Waltz that follows (hence their usual casting names, Waltz Boy and Waltz Girl) and in the jaunty Tema Russo. Meanwhile, Russian Girl (another casting designation) comes and goes, at first blessing the couple, then joining a quartet of women who appear to spin out the pair’s fate. At the end of the Tema Russo, Waltz Boy runs out — or off — with the 16 women while Waltz Girl crashes to the floor. Two (afterlife?) figures appear: Elegy Man and, her hand over his eyes and heart, Dark Angel. Russian Girl enters and the four of them dance, à la Balanchine’s Apollo, the three women with their hair down; after a bit, Russian Girl, like Waltz Boy, disappears, Elegy Man and Dark Angel move on, and Waltz Girl is comforted by some of the women and and borne aloft by three men — into the Light? — as the curtain descends..

La Sylphide is easier to follow but not less complicated. We’re in the Scottish Highlands, and James seems set to marry Effie, despite the efforts of her other suitor, Gurn. But as the curtain rises, the Sylphide — a winged woodland sprite — appears and makes her love known to James. World or otherworld? Prose or poetry? And there’s a third woman in the picture: old hag/witch Madge. (Like Serenade, La Sylphide is a story of two men and three women.) Madge slips into James’s castle to get warm; he fears she’s a bad omen and orders her out; she vows revenge. It’s Madge’s poisoned shawl (act two, echoing the plot and the psychology of Macbeth, opens with a cauldron scene) that James wraps around the Sylphide and that causes her death. But is it Madge’s fault that James wants the Sylphide and sex? Or is Madge the Loathly Damsel of British folklore who’d have turned into the Princess if he’d wanted her? Effie weds Gurn, James swoons as the body of the Sylphide is born aloft, and Madge mocks him. You wonder whether his story, like Waltz Girl’s, is just beginning.

The highlight of the four performances I saw last weekend was Melanie Atkins. Her Russian Girl breathes Balanchine, her inscrutable smile suggesting she’s in communication with Mr. B, her long limbs flying, her pelvis centering, her body dangerously tilted. On her two entrances in the Elegy, she gave the audience an unnerving half-look, as if bearing news from Delphi. To Madge, she brought not only a convincing arthritic limp but the kaleidoscopery of her Balanchine — right down to the “Ahh . . . 15-year-old Laphroaig” expression after downing that first Scotch. This Madge might want James for herself: she keeps thrusting beauty in his way and he doesn’t see it. Atkins capped off her weekend Saturday afternoon with a delectable turn as the solo sylph.

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