Spring Gala at the NYCB: The New Yorkers Become the Danes

I usually despise the gala crowds. The cameras flashing, the women teetering in 6 inch heels (sometimes you can actually see the blood from their blisters), the listless, overfunded audience. This year was in fact the first spring gala I'd attended since, well, forever. And sure enough, the VIP's were there, the women in their back-breaking heels and the men drinking joylessly at the bar. But the reason I attended was because the ballet the NYCB was presenting was for once a true event: the NYCB premiere of August Bournonville's deathless masterpiece La Sylphide. The true balletomanes (squeezed for the most part into the third and fourth rings) discussed such important matters as: would the NYCB dancers erase memories of the Royal Danes? Could they master the endless series of beats and direction changing jumps? How much of the mime would be preserved? Do the men look good in kilts? And how adorable is Sterling Hyltin?

The answer to those questions: not exactly, not exactly, a lot, mostly yes, and super adorable! The evening was not an unqualified success -- it started off with a frankly sloppy and rough edition of Bournonville Divertissements, staged by Nilas Martins. Although some individual performances were superb (Anthony Huxley and Lauren King in the Napoli pas de six) the overall impression was a great company who was still not comfortable with the Bournonville style. Their arms flailed when they were tired, they didn't bother to make the trailing leg in grande jetes bent. Exhibit A was Sara Mearns doing her usual extravagant, lunging, swooning, powerhouse style in that evergreen ode to youthful romance in Flower Festival of Genzano. The final tarantella from Napoli was exciting but for once the feet of the NYCB seemed to tire and so the endless acceleration of the ecstatic beats and jumps and stomps seemed a bit tired and subdued.

Intermission and the curtain rose on La Sylphide. The first sight of Sterling Hyltin wafting about James' house, and you knew that the La Sylphide had the virtue of being rehearsed and coached with care. There are a bunch of things I could pick on -- James' (Joaquin de Luz) purple kilt was a bit too garish, the day-glo second act set (by Susan Tammany) clashed a little with the super-realistic first act set, Brittany Pollack's Effie was rather undistinguished, Daniel Ulbricht was wasted in the role of Gurn, and Georgina Pazcoguin as Madge was way too cartoonish. I've seen Madges really drip not just evil but bitterness. Pazcoguin seemed to play Madge for laughs.

But overall La Sylphide was an artistic triumph for Peter Martins and a personal triumph for Sterling Hyltin. Martins got the same girls who are used to standing as an army in the leotard ballets to look soft, light, and romantic. And Hyltin was simply amazing as the Sylph. Someone must have coached her carefully about arms, head, legs, because she was simply exquisite and perhaps the best non-Danish Sylph I've ever seen. She was flirtatious, ethereal, but aloof -- she pulled away firmly whenever James tried to touch her. Hyltin was obviously coached about the Danish port de bras and jumping -- she kept her arms low and her grande jetes mostly traveled that beautiful arc. My one quibble: when she was poisoned with the scarf she took a little too long pulling her wing off. It needs to be a more seamless move. Bravo Sterling.

Her sister Sylphs were also impressive. The softness of their arms, the lightness of their jumps, how "at home" they looked in the woods scene, was impressive considering how often they are trained to have that clawed, angular look that's necessary for the leotard repertoire. There is always that one moment in Act Two of La Sylphide that makes me almost scream for joy: when the four Sylphs travel downstage and begin a series of gravity defying petit allegro beats. When I saw this moment the other night it looked familiar. Then I realized this is one of Balanchine's favorite techniques as well.

Hyltin's James was Joaquin de Luz, who was comfortable with all the rapid jumps and beats of the part (no mean feat considering he's 39) but overall seemed too extroverted for the role. His James seemed more like a happy playboy than a moody, introspective young man in search for the romantic ideal. In fact, during the first act when Effie (Brittany Pollack) does that famous mime of touching James' head and heart and asking what's wrong, de Luz had a huge megawatt smile the entire time. His interactions with Madge also seemed rather casual. But I'm sure he'll grow into the role. As of now, it was an impressive debut.

NYCB seems to be slowly but surely changing its identity from "the best neoclassical company in the world" to "the best all-around company in America." With their new production of La Sylphide reasons to watch the ABT diminish even more.


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