Les Sylphides is regarded as the first plotless ballet of the twentieth century. As such, it undoubtedly had a significant influence upon the works of George Balanchine who, in his vast output, typically eschewed narrative in favour of composition. Composition is certainly at the heart of Les Sylphides, which begins and ends in a geometrically positioned tableau. Though there is no story here, there is a character who has been variously described as a poet, a dreamer, or, simply, a young man. Dramatically he is a cipher, the only male on the stage, surrounded by diaphanous creatures which sometimes engage him and at other times simply flit around him.
The ballet, choreographed by Michel Fokine, is set to the music of Chopin, and at its initial St Petersburg performance was titled Rêverie romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin, subsequently shortened to Chopiniana. It was in the series premiered by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes that the work became known as Les Sylphides, then lavishly cast with Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina. The music used varied in the early productions, but the orchestration of seven Chopin works for solo piano remains the standard musical version of the ballet.
Rowena Jackson, Philip Chatfield and Nadia Nerina inhabit their ghostly glen in true Romantic style in this performance. Les Sylphides, though technically demanding, provides no opportunities for grandstanding. The dreamlike quality of the work is captured perfectly by these Royal Ballet dancers. The gaiety and charm of Coppélia is a far cry from the tale given as its source, E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Sandman. This very dark short story, written in 1816, was not only the inspiration for the ballet, but also for Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann. Both feature inanimate creations fashioned by mad inventors. In The Sandman, Coppelius is a grotesque presence whose very appearance instills fear. In Coppélia, the scenario makes him more of a buffoonish eccentric. That he attempts to give life to Coppelia, the doll he has created, by siphoning it from Swanilda's drugged betrothed is indeed nefarious, but Arthur Saint-Léon's choreography and Delibes's music make his machinations more comic than demonic.
The perennial popularity of Coppélia has much to do with its score, a fusion of descriptive music underscoring the ballet's mise en scène with exhilarating folk dances appropriate to its rustic setting. The first act includes a mazurka and a czardas for the townspeople. For the second act, Delibes added a rollicking Scottish jig and a seductive Spanish dance for his heroine. It is no coincidence that in Swan Lake, premiering just seven years after Coppélia, Tchaikovsky incorporated a mazurka, a czardas and a Spanish dance into the ballet's third act. It is said that Tchaikovsky both admired and was influenced by Delibes. That esteem yielded considerable musical pleasures.
Swanilda and Coppelius are coveted roles. Swanilda is seldom offstage and has ample opportunity to display the ballerina's technical and theatrical abilities. The most notable interpreters of the role have demonstrated skills of first-rate comediennes, foremost among them Alexandra Danilova, who, in those gruelling tours of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, made Coppélia a welcome presence in countless American cities. Nadia Nerina, the Swanilda of this production, need not defer to any of her illustrious predecessors. She is perfect in the role: technically flawless, loaded with charm and utterly credible in the challenging second act.
Coppelius is a mime role and no one ever did mime as well as Robert Helpmann. Though his acting had a bit of old school about it, there is no denying its effectiveness. It's no surprise that when Helpmann stopped dancing he went straight into film work. His Coppelius has the right degree of grotesqueness, but Helpmann also manages to find a sympathetic dimension to the character, enriching the role considerably.
Giselle was the ballet chosen for Rudolf Nureyev's first performance with the Royal Ballet following his defection from his native Russia in 1961. His partner for that 1962 performance was Margot Fonteyn, who was almost twenty years his senior. That partnership and subsequent friendship was a thing of legend, persisting artistically until their last performance together in 1988 with Fonteyn just short of her seventieth birthday. In many ways this was an unusual collaboration. Aside from the age disparity, there was a question of style. Fonteyn was the quintessential classicist with a purity of line and histrionic reserve prevalent in the British School. Nureyev's Leningrad training was not that dissimilar in style, but his dancing often could be excessively intemperate. But this is also what made Nureyev one of the most exciting dancers of his time. One could only conjecture how these two dancers would mesh stylistically. The Giselle extract included here shows just how well that storied collaboration did work. Nureyev's partnering is effortless, considerate and totally supportive.
His solo work, while technically brilliant, exhibits an appropriate degree of restraint. Fonteyn appears to have shed years as she dances with an unusual degree of abandon, striking for a ballerina in her forties. It has been said that Nureyev breathed new vitality into Fonteyn's work and life. This rare sample of one of their earliest collaborations fully supports that view.
Choreography by Marius Petipa, new scenic version by Yuri Grigorovich. Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Marius Petipa – Alina Cojocaru (Princess Aurora), Federico Bonelli (Prince Florimund), Christopher Saunders (King Florestan XXIV) – The Royal Ballet
Rudolf Nureyev – Agnès Letestu (Odette), José Martinez (Siegfried) – Corps de Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris