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Choreography by Bournonville
Herman Severin LØVENSKIOLD (1815-1870)
La sylphide (1836) [59:16]
Choreography by August Bournonville
Produced by Margaret Dale
Flemming Flindt - James
Lucette Aldous - The sylph
Shirley Dixon - Effie
John Chesworth - Gurn
Gillian Martlew - Madge
Valerie March - Anna
Jennifer Kelly - Nancy
Ballet Rambert
London Symphony Orchestra/David Ellenberg
Matthias STREBINGER (1807-1874) arr. Holger Simon PAULLI (1810-1891)
Pas de deux from Flower festival in Genzano (1858) [11:46]
Choreography by August Bournonville
Produced by Patricia Foy
Rudolf Nureyev - Paolo
Merle Park - Rosa
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Ashley Lawrence
Herman Severin LØVENSKIOLD (1815-1870)
Act 2 pas de deux from La sylphide (1836) [7:04]
Flemming Flindt - James
Elsa-Marianne von Rosen - The sylph
Pro Arte Orchestra/Carmen Dragon
rec. BBC Studio, London (La sylphide and La sylphide Act 2 pas de deux) and Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London (Flower festival in Genzano); 10 July 1960 (La sylphide Act 2 pas de deux), 31 January and 2 February 1961 (La sylphide) and 15 December 1974 (Pas de deux from Flower festival in Genzano).
Sound: enhanced mono
Picture format: 4:3
Region code: 0
DVD format: NTSC
ICA CLASSICS ICAD5099 [80:55]  

Dancer Robert Helpman is the wit usually credited with pointing out that “the trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does.” That perceptive observation must have failed to make an impact on Danish ballet star Flemming Flindt (1936-2009) who was to lead an entirely naked production of The triumph of death in Copenhagen in 1972. Happily - or perhaps unhappily, depending on your point of view - his energetic jumping in Ballet Rambert’s 1961 television performance of La sylphide, preserved on this disc, demonstrates quite conclusively that Scotsmen do wear underpants beneath their kilts.

As its title indicates, however, the selling point of this new DVD is less Mr Flindt’s physical attributes than the choreography of August Bournonville (1805-1879).

Bournonville’s historical significance lies in the fact that in the late 1820s he imported the latest styles and techniques of dancing from Paris to Copenhagen - and the Royal Danish Ballet has preserved them ever since in a virtually unaltered form. While the rest of the dance world subsequently fell under the dominating influence of Russian choreographers including Petipa, Russian impresarios and producers such as Diaghilev, and Russian dancers too numerous to mention - to the extent that aspiring westerners such as Alicia Markova (nee Marks) felt obliged to Russianise their names - Denmark lovingly preserved Bournonville’s sui generis choreography in aspic.

Critic Richard Buckle, writing of his first visit to Copenhagen in 1951, was somewhat dismissive of what he described as Bournonville’s “more quaint than admirable” style. In describing its characteristics, he made it clear that he viewed many of them with a rather jaundiced eye: “... a lack of lyrical line, a small, brittle neatness, the ability to perform steps of elevation and batterie much better than turning movements, an absence of the épaulement which lends poetry and subtlety to classroom steps, and a tendency to begin and end variations facing the audience full on in the fifth position.” [Richard Buckle, The Adventures of a Ballet Critic (London, 1953), p.240.]

For anyone finding that a little too technical, it is also worth observing that Bournonville’s choreography was also distinguished by placing much more emphasis on male dancers than was usual at the time and for the rest of the 19th century. In his best known ballets La sylphide and Napoli - both available on DVD in admirable modern Royal Danish Ballet restagings (Warner Music Vision / NVC Arts 50-501011-2322-2-0 and 2564-63477-2 respectively) - the leading male dancer is an equal protagonist and far from simply a passive support for a “star” ballerina. Thus, pace its title, La sylphide’s central figure is the conflicted Scottish laird James, enticed by the charms of a flighty passing sylph into abandoning his adoring fiancée Effie. Matters end badly for James, as might be expected, when the witch Madge - whom he had earlier grievously offended - uses her trickery to deny him any happiness with his spirit love.

Ballet Rambert’s leading man on this occasion, Flemming Flindt, certainly looks the part, even if his Highland laird is clearly of blond, blue-eyed Viking settler descent. His dancing is impressive too. He is, though, somewhat let down by his habit of indicating thought - something that the morally troubled James engages in rather a lot - by a self-conscious and theatrical style of emoting that is just too obvious and lacking in subtlety for the intimacy of the domestic TV screen.
 
Lucette Aldous is another fine dancer and does her best with a role of inherent difficulty. By her very nature, a sylph is an other-worldly being who is somewhat emotionally detached from the real world. She is not a creature, therefore, to automatically engender sympathy from an audience. In Adolphe Adam’s more familiar early Romantic ballet Giselle (1841), the problem is overcome because we empathise with the eponymous heroine as a real human being in the first Act and maintain our emotional attachment to her in the second. In La sylphide we only ever see the sylph as a spirit and not in her previous human incarnation: in fact, she is never even given a name. It is, therefore, difficult for the audience to feel much empathy with the character, a problem magnified even more by the fact that this particular sylph destroys everyone else’s happiness by her wilfully selfish behaviour. Only when she dies from Madge’s poison in Act 2 and, in her death throes, momentarily becomes a real person again - indicated by her rather puny wings dropping off - do we, the audience, actually have any cause to be moved by her plight.

James’s jilted fiancée Effie, on the other hand, is a recognisably human character with whom we can empathise from the outset. As well as making the most of the limited opportunities she is given to dance, Shirley Dixon - something of an Audrey Hepburn lookalike - is the most successful of the principal characters at anything remotely approaching “acting”. The witch Madge, danced by Gillian Martlew, is also well done, with first class warty make-up and dirty, ragged costumes. This portrayal even manages to generate some sympathy for her as she is turned away from the warmth of the baronial fireplace by the inexplicably short-tempered James. John Chesworth, dancing James’s rival in love Gurn, a sort of ballet version of Hollywood’s perennial romantic loser Ralph Bellamy, makes the most of his occasional opportunities and displays a fine sense of comedy, whether animatedly failing to persuade the other wedding guests that he has seen the sylph or executing a pratfall as he attempts to sit on a chair that has just been taken away behind him.
 
The sets for each Act make for an interesting contrast of styles. Act 1’s is an effective and generally realistic “Scottish baronial hall” creation, all stags’ heads and swords on the walls and with a real fire crackling away in the hearth. Act 2’s is, though, less successful: after a convincingly gloomy and macabre witch’s den, we switch to an open meadow that’s suggested by a very poorly painted backdrop and a few odd “trees” and “bushes”. That is a sad disappointment after the earlier approach.

In general, this La sylphide is well directed - in black-and-white, as you would expect of material of this vintage. One or two camera angles are quite inventive, with one particularly striking shot (29:13-29:33) where depth of field is cleverly used to let us watch Madge a little way to the back while her familiars cavort in the foreground. The only brief glitch that I spotted comes between 37:28 and 37:35 when a reverse tracking shot seems to cause some sort of problem with the camera’s ability to focus as sharply as one would like.

Some of the bits of stage business - such as the sylph’s disappearance up the chimney in Act 1 - are quite effective. There are, sadly, rather too many instances where features that wouldn't have been detected by a theatre audience are unfortunately revealed by close-up TV camera work. Stage machinery allowing the sylph to “fly” is clearly visible at 15:13-15:25, 49:37-49:48 and 50:15-50:26. A close-up shot of Madge’s face at 40:20 allows us to see that her “missing” teeth are, in fact, merely painted black. At 37:24 our belief in the fantasy is jolted when the shadow of a camera moves unexpectedly into shot in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. In a similar vein, occasional examples of dancers looking directly into the lens inevitably remind us that there is a camera present and so undermine our suspension of disbelief. At 10:55 a male member of the corps de ballet is the guilty party. Less excusably and so more annoyingly, Flemming Flindt regularly emotes direct to the camera - at, for instance, 14:09, 25:55 and 43:36. Lucette Aldous does the same thing at 33:44. It all looks rather unprofessional and a little bit silly. Perhaps the 1961 vintage Ballet Rambert company lacked experience in working on television but, if so, they should have been coached more thoroughly in the necessary skills.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, La sylphide’s music is something of a cod confection of generic “Scottishness”, albeit with an occasional bit of borrowed authenticity: the Act 1 wedding guests arrive to an up-tempo version of Auld Lang Syne. It is, though, very well played here - as one might expect - by nothing less than the London Symphony Orchestra and the “enhanced mono” sound quality of the recording is very good.
 
The disc is filled out with the pas de deux from Flower festival at Genzano, featuring Rudolf Nureyev and Merle Park, as well as an alternative “bonus” La sylphide pas de deux in which Flemming Flindt’s partner, offering a blonde Nordic alternative to Lucette Aldous, is Elsa-Marie von Rosen. The Nureyev/Park track features a particularly cheap looking generic ballet set, characterised by designs that appear to have been derived from 1950s wallpaper. That sort of thing will be familiar to anyone who owns one of VAI International’s fascinating Great stars of Russian ballet DVDs featuring old Soviet TV ballet highlights broadcasts. Even in such a crassly ugly stage setting, however, Nureyev and Park are well worth watching. Nureyev, in particular, brings aspects of his characteristically Russian style and flamboyance to Bournonville and produces thereby an intriguing fusion. Though the Flindt/von Rosen track is well executed and interesting, it serves here merely as an appendix to the main Flindt/Aldous offering that, underpants and all, entirely on its own justifies this worthwhile new release. 
 
Rob Maynard 

 

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