Frank Andersen estimates that he’s staged and produced La Sylphide more than 20 times around the globe, from Europe to North America and South America to Asia. And yet for him, the process is far from routine. “The steps are the same, the mime is the same, the story is the same. But the process is different. Because we are people, and every human being is different. Wherever we are in the world, we have to understand the people, the culture the tradition and the country,” he says. “Bournonville is very dear to my heart. It’s always a great challenge to present one of his ballets outside of Denmark, because what we have here doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s terribly exciting and a huge demand on the performers to reach this artistic challenge.”
The challenges Andersen refers to are not just technical— though the Bournonville style is notoriously difficult, despite (and because of) its buoyant, effervescent and effortless appearance. Further work lies in understanding the specificity of the mime sequences that are so prevalent in Bourneville ballets, and which are just as integral to the choreography as balletic steps. The way the dancers physically tell the story is crucial to creating a powerful, resonant, and complete theatrical experience for the audience. And that, according to Andersen, is why ballets like La Sylphide, first performed by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1836, remain so effective as vehicles of emotional and spiritual transportation. When the characters are portrayed with integrity, investment and truth, what they are saying and doing carry timeless themes.
As Andersen explains, the art of storytelling crosses eras, cultures and societies. La Sylphide, whose central characters are a ghost-like creature and a young Scottish lad, is a prime example of how Bournonville used what may seem, at first glance, to be an improbable or impossible scenario to obliquely trigger a viewer’s imagination, emotions, and reflection. “Bournonville made ballets about the common man,” he says. “They are something in which you can imagine yourself. That is what talks to the audience.” James, a young fiancé in the swirl of pre-wedding buzz and societal expectations, is in a very relatable situation indeed— but the Sylph? How and why does this artificial figure fit into a story about mortals, and doesn’t an unrealistic character make the plot lines less credible?
Andersen and his team of Bournonville experts have asked themselves this many times. “We want to know, who is the Sylph? We believe that most likely she exists only in the mind of James. He is the only one who sees her, and in his mind, she is the most extraordinary person he’s ever seen in his life; he’s never seen anything so beautiful. He goes to grab her; she disappears into the chimney. Who can do that, aside from Santa Claus? So he thinks it must be a dream. He falls back asleep, and when Effy comes in, he grabs for her, thinking it is the Sylph— so to my knowledge, the Sylph is something James is longing for in Effy, but maybe not getting. He has been seduced by the Sylph, she has succeeded in making him be taken by her. Love, despair, seduction, deceiving. It’s everywhere, all the time. Those elements are in our daily lives.”
When Andersen teaches a Bournonville ballet like La Sylphide, he sees his foremost task as encouraging the dancers in front of him to let go of artifice and, within the very specific details of the choreography, become the characters. The ballet technique of Bournonville is so unique as to be more than merely a different style; it’s literally different movement. But Andersen says it’s the mime that can be even more of a stretch for dancers, particularly those in North America, where training focuses so heavily on speed, power, and extension— none of which are absent in Bournonville, by the way— over detailed precision of port de bras, the positioning of head, neck, shoulders and arms, and characterization.
Andersen strives to make the dancers so familiar with the ballet’s movements that they could, as he only half-jokingly says, “be woken up at 3 a.m. and do the same gesture as they would do in rehearsal twelve hours later.” Then, they have the facility to fall deeply into the emotions of the role. He wants them to go further than acting or pretending, which an audience can tell is superficial. The key is investing so fully, so honestly, that the dancer and character are one and the same. “The challenge we bring to the dancers lies in engaging them so that they are sharing the emotions of the drama itself. And then, that is how we engage the audience. It requires massive technique, empathy, and commitment. But these dancers have that,” he says. OBT principal Xuan Cheng feels that working with Andersen and his fellow Bournonville expert, Eva Kloborg, on this concept was transformational. “We spent so much time talking about the acting and the mime: the eyes, where you look, how you hold the shape of your hand, the angle of your head are so important. This has actually changed the way I am as an artist and how I dance. Not everything has to be big. It all has to come from the inside: what are you saying, what story are you telling?”
Honesty is a word Andersen uses a lot to describe the process and ultimate success of presenting a classic narrative ballet like La Sylphide. The more honestly the dancers believe in what they are doing— and saying— with their movement, the more vividly the events on stage will appear. The audience should, at the end of an evening, feel they have not been sitting in a theater, but have been living in the ballet. “It’s like they’ve been peeping— not a show, not a performance. The real thing. Living in the world with these characters, with their emotions. If we, the artists, are completely honest, dance with our hearts, and do our job so thoroughly that we ARE the person we are supposed to be, are completely present, then that is mission accomplished. That is the key to recovering the great treasure of these ballets.”
And still, how do we, in this new millennium, relate to the ideas of La Sylphide? It’s a big question, but Andersen has answers. “It lies again in the honesty onstage. If we are completely naked when we go in and do this performance, and present it to the audience like we ARE, you ARE, then there is no ‘fake.’ Then it is the truth. By the emotion, the despair, the physical expression, we can reach the audience and explain to them how important this ballet is, into this century.”
Former OBT principal dancer Gavin Larsen is the author of Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life (University Press of Florida)