The Queensland Ballet made its debut at the London Coliseum last week, and the company is clearly flourishing under the directorship of Li Cunxin, whose life was the subject of the film, Mao’s Last Dancer. La Sylphide is the oldest ballet still in the classical repertory and isn’t the most common of productions these days, but Peter Schaufuss’ version, developed from the 1836 original by August Bournonville, shows his sympathy for and dexterity at the Danish style in which he himself was trained.
It may be a tad odd to have a Danish ballet, set in the Highlands, performed by an Australian company but hey, it works, probably because the visitors worked so closely with Schaufuss for these performances. Whilst Schaufuss’ more recent works have been of mixed success, this 1979 production won him Olivier and Evening Standard Awards at the time. And this recreation is a real family affair, with his daughter Tara a member of the company and his son Luke appearing as a guest principal. The family has a strong connection with La Sylphide, Peter’s parents working on a production from the Forties onwards, and Peter himself taking the role of James in his debut, back in 1973.
A chip off the old block, Luke Schaufuss, an artist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, was named one of The Guardian’s Rising Stars of 2015. One can see why from his performance as James, a Scottish lad on the brink of marriage who becomes infatuated with a sylph. Luke’s nippy footwork, grand leaps and clean, swift twists and turns in this Scottish-inspired choreography really do set him apart, and he is exciting to watch.
It is to his credit that he is able to shine so, given that Sarah Thompson’s vacant Sylph offers no charm that might believably lure a man away from his fiancé on their wedding day; his sudden (and ill-fated) amour is baffling. Proficient Thompson may be, but her characterization is pitiful. She spent most of the first act with a completely gormless expression on her face, which one can only assume was meant to be mystical and beguiling; lips set apart and a glassy sheen across her eyes only served to make her look more like a doll than a woodland fairy – perhaps she thought they were doing Coppelia. James’ change of heart is made all the more perplexing by the spirited little bundle of energy that is his fiancé, danced by Mia Heathcote. Effie, by comparison, is sprightly, playful, humorous and, crucially, seems interested in James, which you’d think he’d enjoy. Finally, in the second act, Thompson deploys a soupçon of coquettishness but by then one can’t be at all sure what her game even is.
Everything turns out alright though, since Effie ends up with James’ charismatic friend, Gurn, who has been just waiting for his chance and is clearly more enthusiastic about the prospect of their union than her actual fiancé is. As Gurn, the handsome Vito Bernasconi is good fun and cheeky to the point of audacity, often turning into the group’s jester. His broad sense of character occasionally threatens to overshadow Luke Schaufuss’ lead, but when it comes to technical ability, the latter maintains the edge.
A guest appearance from Greg Horsman as Madge the witch is done with appropriately wicked wit. It may eke the whole thing into pantomime territory (along with Gurn’s wild arm-flapping when he tried to impersonate the Sylph) but that is not necessarily a bad thing: we’re talking about a forest full of fairies anyway so it’s fair to say that reality has been firmly suspended. Let’s not forget that this story was the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta, Iolanthe, so an element of the ridiculous was clearly lying dormant in the tale already. In addition, to see Madge cackling with such grim verve over James’ lifeless body once everything has gone wrong, adds a certain pathos to his tale through such unnervingly dark humour: just because something’s funny doesn’t mean it isn’t also moving.
Regardless, the sylphs en-masse are sublime – a gleaming vision of mellow green tulle gliding into unfailingly uniform arabesques with quiet ease. The company, in general, does a sterling job, their footwork in the fiendishly fast Highland flings practically scorching the floor. They are a buoyant, vivacious troupe with sharp technique and solid ensemble. Impressive performances also came from the younger dancers who joined the ranks and kept up with their senior counterparts brilliantly. Despite misgivings, the Aussies can most definitely be proud of their stint on St. Martin’s Lane.