Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Rykine and Cornejo frolic in the forest in La Sylphide.

Few have pointed this out, but Boston Ballet's current double bill of La Sylphide and Balanchine's Serenade all but bookends the tradition of the prima ballerina. The juxtaposition was accidental (other Balanchine dances were originally scheduled), but no less haunting for that. Dating from 1836, La Sylphide is probably the oldest "story ballet" extant, and stamps with straightforward power the template on which Giselle and Swan Lake are but variations. After a century-long run, however, said template (enamored bachelor, doomed sylph) reached its own rendesvouz with destruction (or deconstruction) in Serenade (1934), in which Balanchine took the romance between ballerina and danseur and transmuted it into abstraction.

Alas, the Ballet has set the shorter, later piece first in their program, so said arc happens in reverse; still, its resonance seems to hang over the entire evening. Not that either piece needs much help in the atmosphere department. The Ballet essayed Serenade just a year ago, and performed Sylphide on the road this summer, so both productions impressed with that sense of artistic depth born of experience. Of the two, Serenade struck deeper on opening night; with Larissa Ponomarenko and Eileen Atkins, the Ballet's best Balanchineans, on tap for the leads, and the corps in superb form (as they were in last week's gala), how could it not? From the opening frieze of gauzy femininity (17 women in tulle, posed with one hand crooked to heaven), to the ballerina's final, funereal apotheosis, the corps penetratingly conveyed Balanchine's patterned vision of sex and death. Alas, as is often the case with the Ballet, its men didn't quite seem the equal of its women - Carlos Molina, at least, seemed a bit lost as Balanchine's first danseur (of course that ocean of virginal tulle could daunt anyone); Pavel Gurevitch was more incisive as the final, older and wiser Balanchine figure, who moodily approached the wounded Pomonarenko while blinded by fate - or at least by Lia Cirio, who danced with authority but gave off few spectral vibrations, as the role probably should. Still, the ensuing variations had the elegiac gravitas required, and Pomonarenko's final ascension above the corps was as haunting as it should be.

La Sylphide, by way of contrast, is all highland spirit until a surprisingly poignant denouement, and its simple, almost naively rendered story - of a Scottish bridegroom (Roman Rykine) who deserts his beloved for a magical sylph (Erica Cornejo, with Rykine at left) - was delivered by the company with unapologetic panache. After nailing the delicate precision of the Balanchine, the corps expertly switched gears and began throwing off reels with infectious abandon, and there were exciting turns from Reyneris Reyes (as the swain who finally gets the girl), Kathleen Breen Combes (as said girl), and particularly Elizabeth Olds (as the crone who's at least partly to blame for the eventual tragedy).

The venerable choreography, by Bournonville via Sorella Englund, was often charming, and admirably paced, but Reyes, Combes, and Olds conveyed the power of the piece as much through their acting as their dancing (subtle characterization is becoming a hallmark of the Ballet, in fact). Rykine and Cornejo, meanwhile, though technically accomplished, were dramatically blank. This was particularly surprising in Rykine, who expertly conveyed a similar aristocrat in Giselle, but here seemed able to convey only the hero's hauteur rather than his tortured longing. Cornejo was even less compelling as the eponymous sylph - her technique is truly awe-inspiring, and her en pointe leaps and lands are so gentle they'd be better described as on-pillow. But she was far more coquette than seductress, and cast very little spell beyond the enchantments of her technique (until her death scene, which she seized with unexpected power). It was a measure of the breadth and depth of the Ballet's talent that this gap hardly mattered in what was one of the most pleasurable evenings of dance this year.

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