A riot of tartan, a Scottish croft, a witch called Madge and a fairy that flies up the chimney: these are the surprising features of La Sylphide - surprising if, like my companions on two consecutive nights at Covent Garden last week, you are expecting Les Sylphides, a ballet made more than half a century later. Auguste Bournonville's gem of 1836 is the oldest ballet still in circulation, preserved intact by an unbroken history of performance in Denmark. It's also the only ballet classic whose hero wears a kilt.
Johan Kobborg's production for the Royal Ballet has settled nicely on its second outing, and there are good reasons why the company should look happy in it. All that Ashton footwork the dancers have been working at has left them primed for the fleet hops and fluttering beats of Bournonville. As for dramatic style, realism has always been a company strength, and this staging is deliciously alert to the contrast between the humdrum details of domestic life and the fantasy of a man who feels trapped by them.
James, a wealthy farmer, is about to be married to Effie. His best man Gurn also loves Effie and is outraged when he suspects James of a dalliance elsewhere. In fact Effie's rival is no woman but a sylphide who drifts in through the open window and eventually persuades James to flee his own nuptials to join her in the great outdoors. Ludicrous, of course. But period delicacy of action and feeling banishes any taint of farce, even in the climactic scene where the sylph determinedly flits across the wedding-guests' Scottish reel, to the bridegroom's rising panic.
It's all very cleanly done, the mime economical, the company work pristine, even if on Tuesday night some gremlin caused three dancers, in separate incidents, to trip and tumble. Federico Bonelli is a convincing James, relying on his tall, arrowy physique to plead his case, throwing off the twinkling entrechats with an appearance of gallant ease.
Tamara Rojo was the first night's sylph, dancing a little under par with a jump that seemed - for her - on the clunky side. The Rojo silhouette, however, is perfect, a softly continuous slope from nape to shoulder to toe. Tuesday's Alina Cojocaru is altogether wispier. You can almost believe she'd float away, though even she couldn't make much sense of the levitating business on wires.
Another contrast between casts was the hag Madge. Monday's Gary Avis failed to rise above cliché, whereas Tuesday's Sorella Englund, after two decades in the role, has honed it to an art. Every crabbed gesture suggests a minor tragedy of lost hope, and her final grieving howl begs a narrative of its own.
As for the first part of the evening (Syphide is short), there is a choice. Either audiences can complete the Bournonville experience with Kobborg's new staging of excerpts from Napoli - a string of sunlit and unbelievably bouncy dances inspired by partying on the streets of Naples - or complement it with Ashton's Rhapsody. The Rhapsody programme won my vote, not because Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini is a great piece of music, but because Ashton's choreography is at its most inspired when required to add substance to froth.
Rhapsody, created in 1980, also took inspiration from the abilities of the young Baryshnikov. Carlos Acosta - taller and chunkier - takes on the challenge for this revival, and while a purist might pick holes in the polish of his execution, awe is a more realistic response. For muscular power, for daring, for sheer pizzazz, Acosta is in a class of his own. What's more, he's a super-attentive partner, which meant Leanne Benjamin could risk all.
Because for all this ballet's feats of machismo, Rhapsody belongs to its ballerina. I swear the entire house stopped breathing on Benjamin's first bourrée-ing entry, her toes beating like moths' wings against the merest tremble of piano. In the final stretch of her career, this tiny ballerina has become concentrated, all essence. And that essence is at its tenderest and most intoxicating here.
If it's mid-January, it must be time for The London International Mime Festival. And round it comes with a programme of ever more unclassifiable items, strenuously denying any suggestion that mime might be about a man in white paint. Which makes the choice of Jean-Baptiste André to open the season all the more mystifying. For here is a loner in a white suit and Pierrot ruff, pining stylishly in a blank white space. Andre is an interesting mover when he chooses to be, flopping, coiling and hand-springing his considerable height and length about the Purcell Room stage. But he lost me early on. Whatever he thought he was doing didn't deliver. And when he sat down with his back to us to puff on what smelled distinctly like a joint, I almost decided 70 minutes was too much of my life to waste.
'Sylphide' bill: ROH (020-7304 4000) in rep until 9 Feb. LIMF continues.Reuse content