It's hard to imagine the effect of La Sylphide on its audience in the 1830s. Not only did it feed the fashionable frenzy for all things gothic, supernatural and Scottish (this last whipped up by the novels of Walter Scott), but it featured the extraordinary sight of a ballerina apparently hovering several inches above the stage, thanks to the latest innovation of padding the toes of her shoes. The fact that we're now so familiar with dancers on point (and also fairies) naturally makes modern productions of Bournonville's ballet rather less sensational. But other aspects of Romantic technique - the sweetly curving arms, the frisky little jumps, the gauzy delicacy of feeling - are so unlike what we're used to in the later, grander Russian ballets that they come across as fresh, soft and actually rather novel.
Scottish Ballet's Sylphide, which opened Woking Dance Umbrella last week, was mounted by Sorella Englund from the Royal Danish Ballet (guardians of the Romantic style) and perfectly captures the work's ultra-fragile nature. Given one sharp-angled move, one too-lusty leap, and the spell would be broken. It's not hard to see why it's rarely staged in this country. The 22-year-old guest ballerina Tamara Rojo invests the title role with a tender sweetness that never verges on the coy, even when fluttering her hands behind her back to mimic wings ( she also has a stiff little pair sprouting from her shoulder blades), or cupping her ear to get a trill from the orchestra's flutes.
All the spectacular steps in this early ballet go to the men, who were not required to dissipate their energies in lifting ballerinas, but could concentrate instead on marathons of springy, twiddle-toed jumps as well as balletic variations on the Highland Fling. In these, Johann Kobborgs's spins are so neat and fast that his kilt almost turns tutu. The long stretches of mimed action - notably between the hero James and the witch Madge, negotiating over the spell that she claims will bind the sylph to him - are pellucidly satisfying and beautifully knit to the score. Audi- ences swear they've never heard of the composer Lovenskjold until they hit Sylphide's Classic FM highlights. Its' wonderful music.
In daring to stray from well-trodden repertoire, Scottish Ballet has lighted on a piece that sets off its stylistic strengths to perfection. With those drifts of sister sylphs in white bouffant skirts, nodding and drooping like snowdrops, it's hard to imagine a more exquisite Sylphide this side of Copenhagen.
By happy chance Matthew Bourne revived his Adventures in Motion Pictures' skit on the same work at The Place this week. His 1994 Highland Fling transports the first act to a slummy Glasgow flat and the second to a patch of wasteland with high-rises visible through the smog. James and his mates are McEwen's-swilling louts, and our kilted hero gets his first vision of the Sylph after popping some E's at his stag party. In typical Bourne fashion it's all highly ingenious and entertaining, but this updating, unlike his Swan Lake, offers no fresh insights on its original. The choreography is for the most part pretty thin.
Only in the "white act" does the movement get interesting, with its grungey grey sylphides shuffling in pigeon-toed imitation of tree stumps, or quivering like something found under a stone. Maxine Fone's grubby minx of a Sylph haunts her man by ghoulishly riding his shoulder - a potent image against the shadows of Lez Brotherstons's set. And the moment when Neil Pennington, in the hope of rendering the Sylph human, chops off her wings, supplies a truly gothic frisson. The dreamer literally massacres his dream.
With the dust hardly settled after the West End triumph of Swan Lake, perhaps it's just too soon to be refingering lesser Bourne treasures. But it occurs to me the Highland Fling rather doubles up the Romantic theme of its source, rather than just reinventing it. In Bournonville's ballet, idealism is quashed by reality. Bourne's all-too-present scenario leaves too little to wild imagining.
'La Sylphide' (in a double bill with Robert North's 'Troy Game'): Wycombe Swan (01494 512000), 20 April to 3 May.Reuse content