Senior Artist Juliet Burnett shares her preparation for the ultimate Romantic ballet – mastering the nuances of the Danish technique, exploring the character and drawing fairy flight paths.
One of my favourite aspects of this profession is researching roles as I prepare for a performance. So as a dance history nut, I was already in dreamland when I found out I’d be dancing one of the oldest surviving ballets: La Sylphide.
Fairy fantasies inhabit the aspiration of many budding young ballerinas (I was no exception), but becoming La Sylphide is not as simple as that. There is a Romantic ballet tradition to be respected and understood, and some very difficult technicalities and nuances to master. The version staged by The Australian Ballet is Danish master August Bournonville’s, choreographed in 1836, and it has been carefully preserved by The Royal Danish Ballet, so that what is seen today is more or less in its original state. What a privilege, to be joining a long lineage of Sylphides and becoming a custodian of history for a moment in time.
Before I step into the studio to learn the choreography, I like to have completed a bit of groundwork. What a wonderful resource the internet is in this instance. I read up on the history of La Sylphide, Romantic ballet and Bournonville, became entranced and inspired by videos of famous interpreters of the role like Carla Fracci and Eva Evdokimova, and was charmed by videos of some of the earliest interpreters. I unearthed old La Sylphide photos that had decorated my bedroom wall as a child – of Margot Fonteyn in the purest Romantic arabesque line imaginable, and Lisa Bolte in that famous window entrance. I printed out old lithographs of Marie Taglioni, the creator of the role, and other Romantic ballerinas with those impossible hourglass figures and tapered toes, for these are valuable visual cues for creating the correct shapes with the movement, and of course for sparking the imagination.
Starting to understand the character and story came next, as this was important in order to achieve the right movement quality. A sylphide is a young sylph, a spirit of the air. She is playful and light in her relentless and almost inquisitive flitting. In the context of the story, she and the sylphs must convey delicate ethereality, sprightliness and innocence in contrast to the robust and earthy Scots, and the sinister and grotesque witches. It’s a fairytale with a dark undertone and an age-old but pertinent moral regarding human lust and greed. James, dissatisfied with simply admiring the Sylphide’s beauty from afar (moreover, willing to compromise a happy betrothal with someone of wealth), wants to literally possess her. Though flirtatious, the Sylphide barely has to try to tempt James, so she has to be believable as the most wondrous and spellbinding spirit, as though she has firefly light exuding from every pore. She is very innocent in her intent; she just loves him and wants him to come and live in the forest with her. When she dies, despite James’ betrayal, she still vows that she loves him. Pure and simple.
I was ready to learn some steps. Principal Ballet Mistress and former Sylphide Fiona Tonkin was as meticulous as ever in her coaching, imparting storytelling and stylistic details as much as technicalities. I really enjoy working with her on the roles that she’s danced herself – there is a palpable sense of passing on the baton, and it’s also very helpful to have the ballet demonstrated for you so expertly. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to work on Romantic ballets, and the disparity of the style to the classical ballet we usually perform, and indeed train ourselves for in class, is always a challenge for the body. Having said that, each time we come to work on one of these ballets, I become more grateful for my Cecchetti training, with its emphasis on soft, pure and fluid dance qualities.
There were many distinguishing movement traits to master, all with the objective of creating weightlessness. The Sylphide’s port de bras and body carriage moves in arcs, the hallmark of the Romantic style. Down below, the signature Bournonville footwork is intricate, staccato and speedy, with lots of jumping to convey lightness. To achieve the curvature of the physical formations with the fast footwork, the body’s weight needs to be placed forward, much more so than in modern classical ballet, in which the movement is more linear and upright. The weightless illusion is further enhanced by the diaphanous Romantic tutu, billowing out as if with breath as the Sylphide delicately descends from the air, her landing soft and imperceptible. Apart from the ethereality, all of these factors culminate in a sort of earnest quality that makes the dance enchanting, generous and warm.
There is a lot of mime in La Sylphide, so harking back to The Australian Ballet School’s mime classes with Ray Powell, in which I learnt the mime vocabulary, became a very useful tool. One of the biggest challenges I found was making this mime feel sincere, especially when it is so set to the music and not “said” in the right order for proper English sentences! Although the Sylphide is a mythical creature, she has human qualities, such as her love for James, so I wanted to make my Sylphide as real as possible within her unearthly realm. I practised the mime over and over with Fiona, saying the words to myself as I mimed to the music:
“I, you, love!”
“You, with me, over there, to the forest, how about it?”
“I, told you no, now I’m, dying.”
All this while maintaining Romantic carriage, whose sinuous quality doesn’t immediately lend itself to punctuation and clarity: thus the need to be deliberate with the mime movements. But in that quest, there is a danger of exaggerating the mime, which makes it look and feel affected. Knowing the size and layout of your theatre is imperative for effective storytelling; the direction of your gaze and correct gauging of your projection is just as important as the choreography. Trying too hard to “be Romantic”, or making the mime too big distorts the purity of the Romantic shapes and the story.
Another challenge was negotiating a plethora of props and sets. While teaching the choreography, Fiona seamlessly interwove detailed instructions as to their use and purpose, as well as passing on some trouble-shooting tips. When you have scarves, flowers, a ring, a giant chimney, an even more giant window and a trick chair to contend with on top of the dancing, you want to feel like you know these factors intimately before you get onstage, so I was very grateful for this care!
Despite the weight of expectation to do justice to the history of the ballet, inevitably, as an artist, each interpretation is filtered by one’s own sense of movement and personality. Every Sylphide of the past, I am sure, has faced individual struggles. One of mine was to find the right balance of delicacy. My natural dance quality is floaty and lyrical, so if I venture too far into the idea of conveying delicacy, I can look insipid. For me, rounding out the port de bras and finding the co-ordination in the transference of weight so that I could achieve moments of earthiness to counter and highlight the flying moments would be important. Moving quickly is not my forte, and sometimes in my effort to be speedy I would become brittle, which of course is at odds to the soft quality I needed to achieve. I used imagery as an aide – I envisaged one continuous undulating line in which I would travel, the impetus for the next jump having been prepared for in the previous step, and so on. I drew pictures in my journal of swirling shapes and floating fairy flight-paths, and as I practised in the studio, I tried to recreate these images in movement, with my body as an ink pen and the space around me a canvas.
When I was a young ballet student, I was transported by The Australian Ballet’s performance of La Sylphide, with Lisa Bolte dancing the title role. Her joyous and moving Sylphide is forever etched in my memory, and I often reminisced about it during the rehearsal period. She is now a dear friend and of course I was dying to share with her my own adventure of becoming La Sylphide. She gave me a beautiful piece of advice which I carried with me in performance: “Dance this ballet not as a ballerina, but as a fairy”. Such a simple sentiment, but somehow it just pulled together all that preparation, and all those details of technique and story, into what I had dreamed of all those years ago, which is the heart of the matter: creating magic.
The Sydney season of La Sylphide opens tonight! With Cinderella all but sold out, this Romantic double bill is your last opportunity to see The Australian Ballet this year. Don’t miss out!