Paquita & La Sylphide. A second look

16 November 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I was startled to see, when looking at the Australian Ballet’s website to check the casting for my Sydney subscription performance of Paquita and La Sylphide, that Paquita was advertised as a Romantic ballet—’the last flowering of the Romantic ballet’. Elsewhere on the website the program was described as ‘the first and last [of the] great Romantic ballets on one double bill’. The original, full-length Paris production of Paquita (1846) might have been in the Romantic tradition, although that is disputed by some, but what the Australian Ballet has been presenting is definitely not a Romantic work. Marius Petipa made additions to the original Paquita when he restaged his version in Russia in 1881 (1882 new style date). Those interpolations with music by Minkus are, I believe, what most companies now perform. The complete ballet was staged relatively recently (2001) by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet, but not many other companies have a full-length production in their repertoire. Without the rest of the ballet, the Petipa arrangements can scarcely be called Romantic, although the Spanish overtones we see and hear in the Petipa excerpts do allude to the Spanish elements of the full-length ballet.

Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in 'Paquita'
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in Pierre Lacotte’s production of Paquita

That aside, it was a thrill to see Daniel Gaudiello taking the male role in my Sydney viewing of the Australian Ballet’s excerpts from Paquita. What I love about Gaudiello’s dancing (apart from his technical abilities) is his wonderful approach to partnering. He is so attentive to and caring of his partner (Lucinda Dunn on this occasion) without being merely a ‘porteur’. When he stands back from her and lifts his arms to an open fifth position he is not only triumphantly showing her off as the ballerina, but also showing his own polish and charisma as a true ‘danseur noble’. He has great style.

Of the variations I especially enjoyed the second variation, subtly and gently danced by Jessica Fyfe, and the dancing of the two demi-soloists, Vivienne Wong and Benedicte Bemet, the latter certainly a rising personality.

I was pleased too that my previous disappointment with the staging of La Sylphide dissipated somewhat with a second look. This time I thought there was much more feeling for the Romantic style in the second act and a better contrast between the first and second acts.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'La sylphide' Photo: Jeff Busby, 2013
Artists of the Australian Ballet in La sylphide. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

Perhaps it was Reiko Hombo, who gave a strong, individualistic interpretation, beautifully danced, of the Sylph that made the difference. The lightness and height of her jump; her softly unfolding, beautifully controlled arabesques; her lovely rounded arms; and her supple upper body gave the right technical feel to the role. In addition, her interpretation was consistent and well thought through. There was a definite wickedness of intention there under all that charm as she made every effort to convince James of her wish that he join her in her forest realm. It brought home very nicely that ‘beautiful danger’ that respected Danish scholar Erik Aschengreen so perceptively wrote about many years ago as being a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. And Hombo carried this approach through into the second act.

Hombo was partnered by Chengwu Guo as James and he had, I thought, settled well into the role since my previous viewing. Perhaps again it was Hombo who made the difference. She gave him something to respond to, and as technical partners they work well together. Halaina Hills as Effie and Amy Harris as the lead Sylph in Act II also added a certain strength to the overall production. But I regret that the important role of Madge always seems to degenerate into something a little manic. It has been a long time since there has been a really powerful performance in Australia of that role. Without a strong and convincing Madge the ballet loses much of its intent.

Erik Bruhn as Madge in La Sylphide, the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

My earlier post on this program is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2013

4 thoughts on “Paquita & La Sylphide. A second look

  1. I didn’t see Lucinda Dunn during the Melbourne season of this programme. In fact I don’t think she was performing at all. I am interested to know your response to her Paquita Grand Pas performance Michelle. The Madge role was played well by Colin Peasley in Melbourne but Brett Simon really made a meal out of letting us know that a man was playing the role. And his ridiculous “hiss the villain” curtain call really trivialised the character of Madge. I think the disappearance of the lowering, almost fully built, tree that used to dominate the stage setting in Act 2 has resulted in the atmosphere being quite different from the first production. I know the flying Sylphs disappeared quite early but I can’t recall when the tree disappeared from the set.

  2. I thought Dunn gave a technically well executed performance, apart from the occasional pirouette that wasn’t finished off really cleanly. But I thought she lacked the dazzling quality that I think is needed in this Grand Pas.

    But thank you Adrian for pointing out the disappearance of the tree, which I hadn’t noticed, although its disappearance was probably part of the reason I kept feeling so disgruntled! You are absolutely right that the atmosphere is quite different now from the early productions. While I think there is not the same understanding of the ballet by the current dancers as there was previously, it doesn’t help that the setting no longer looks as though it is deep in the forest. I can’t find images of the 2005 production (which is the last I remember by the Australian Ballet) so I don’t know either when it disappeared. But shots taken by Don McMurdo in Sydney in 1989 are a reminder of what it added to the feel of Act II.

    I didn’t see Peasley as Madge on this occasion. I saw Simon in Melbourne and Donnelly in Sydney and neither did it for me I’m afraid.

    This link will take you to a McMurdo image on the NLA catalogue, which I can’t publish as an image without the permission of the SOH:

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