The Russian Ballet Collection: more newly restored films – La Sylphide & Chopiniana

Charlotte Kasner continues her preview five newly restored films of Russian ballets never previously seen in the West. Here, she looks at a La Sylphide based on Taglioni and Nouritt’s 1832 version rather than the usual Bournonville; and Fokine’s Chopiniana.

Part 1 of the preview: Adam and Eve
Part 3 – Grigorovich’s Ivan the Terrible and Romeo & Juliet

This new batch of digitally restored releases from Russian Ballets contains a real jewel that in fact comes from Japan. The Tokyo Ballet production of La Sylphide harks back to a version largely unfamiliar today: that created by Filippo Taglioni and Adolphe Nouritt in 1832, four years earlier than the more familiar Bournonville version.

La Sylphide tends to be given a ‘shortbread-tin Scotchness’, designers going for the most garish of tartans in what is, for even the most noble of danseurs, a very unflattering look at the best of times. No such worries here.

There are no choreographic records from Taglioni’s era, so producer Pierre Lacotte used lithographs, annotated scores and a remarkable dossier of Taglioni memorabilia dug out of a long-forgotten cellar in the Louvre to create a ballet blanc with just one male role and a corps of sylphs as with Les Sylphides. This recording dates from 1992 and uses a score created by Taglioni’s contemporary Jean Schneizhoffer.

While it might upset purists stylistically, this Les Sylphides conforms to modern expectations of Romantic ballet. It opens on a hag-ridden heath, wreathed in mist, where one almost expects would-be Scottish kings to come riding, speculating on their future. When they have done their worst, leaving the audience in little doubt that things are not going to end well, we see a suggestion of a ruined Gothic chapel, and flying across the window, our first sylph.

Yukari Saito and Naoki Takagishi in a still from the film of La Sylphide
Yukari Saito and Naoki Takagishi in a still from the film of La Sylphide

Lacotte has succeeded in transferring his extensive research to the dancers and, in collaboration with designers, found an ideal method of conveying the intentions of the original creators of Romantic ballets with the benefit of modern methods. Camera work is sensitive and balances just the right amount of close-ups to allow detailed to be seen while not losing the opportunity to frame the context.

The sylphs really do appear to fly with the minimum of evidence of the mechanics, and Yukari Saito in the title role has such a mastery of technique that she conveys precisely the sense of lightness and flight. Naoki Takagishi as James understands the unique requirements of Romantic partnering and, rather than appearing to lift, seems to be attempting to anchor the sylph to earth as she extends her implausible wings in flight. The combination of faultless timing and Saito’s core strength create a fluidity that is accentuated by the diaphanous tutus that create the impression that the sylphs are made from thistledown.

The knowledgable Russian audience rightly gives the well-drilled corps its due as they execute a series of near-perfect sequences. All the familiar favourites are there: scissors, groups of three and four using various heights to frame a fleeting image, and pas de quatre. The more picky might note that the ports de bras, though further forward than for the classical era, are still a considerable way behind those of the original period and upper bodies are far more upright, but it looks fine.

Takagishi is given several solos in which to demonstrate his lithe landings and sparkling batterie. He too understands the period and performs with a fitting quiet restraint that is very different to the more brash fireworks of later decades.

The scene where James binds the sylph to him thereby sealing her demise is truly moving. Saito summons up vast reserves of pathos as she flutters in the confines of the fabric which James finally winds around her arms, capturing her like a fly in a sticky spider web as her struggles wane to death.

So, the hag has the literal last laugh as James learns too late that some things must just be enjoyed for what they are and cannot be captured.

Fortunately for us, Lacotte’s restored film captures the ballet near-perfectly.

Natalia Bessmertnova and Alexander Bogatyrev in Chopininana
Natalia Bessmertnova and Alexander Bogatyrev in Chopininana

More familiar outside Russia as Les Sylphides, at first sight, Mikhail Fokine’s Chopiniana might seem to have a lot in common with the Tokyo Ballet production of La Sylphide, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The ballet takes its title from Glazunov’s 1892 orchestrations of Chopin Etudes. Premiered as part of Diaghilev’s Saison Russe in Paris in 1909, Les Sylphides was Fokine’s second choreography to the music, the first being a series of character dances for a 1907 charity performance in St Petersburg.

The ballet was inspired by Fokine seeing Anna Pavlova dancing a sylph a year earlier. She also featured as a soloist in that Paris premiere, along with Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky (as the poet) and Alexandra Baldina. Quite a cast list!

Les Sylphides must have been a bit of a shock to Ballet Russe audiences used to orientalism and a fetish for modernism. Perhaps Fokine did not want to throw the baby out with the bath water in his examination of ballet’s early modern theatrical past. The same sentiments were echoed by Galina Ulanova who chose its cool perfection as both her graduation and farewell performances.

A still from the film of the Bolshoi Ballet in Chopiniana
A still from the film of the Bolshoi Ballet in Chopiniana

The ballet fell from favour for a while, not being performed at the Bolshoi at all between 1932 and 1958, but then remained as a staple of the repertoire. Since then, in London at least, it has suffered from decay, becoming a loaded with wafting sentimentalism fronted by some very fey poets.

There’s none of that in this 1977 production from Soviet Russia with Natalia Bessmertnova, Galina Kozlova and Alexander Bogatyrev who, along with the corps, bring the work right back to its roots with a hefty injection of Russian soul.

Bogatyrev rescues the poet’s role from its limp past by creating a classic brooding Romantic, seeking enlightenment in the dark world of ghosts. He creates a powerful character with a dramatic logic of knowing that he is in the word of the sylphs. He supports their existence in his questing as if they would simply fade if he became more imposing. He rarely makes prolonged eye contact, creating the impression that he can only perceive these elusive creatures from the periphery of his vision.

Bessmertnova and Kozlova are self-contained sylphs, assured in their natural melancholy, their lightness almost accidental. This is worship at the foot of technique, totally dedicated to the needs of the production. Crescent feet and shimmering bourées are counterposed by steely back muscles from which strong arms ripple. Placement is utterly accurate with any moment poised to be captured in a perfect facsimile of an early 19th-century lithograph.

Again, like Fokine, we have to go backwards in order to go forwards; this performance so fortuitously captured here providing many lessons that contemporary productions could learned from.

Part 1 of the preview: Adam and Eve
Part 3: Grigorovich’s Ivan the Terrible and Romeo & Juliet

The films are not yet available, although RTRWorldwide are presently negotiating with broadcasters worldwide. They also hope to have them available on DVD later this year as The Russian Ballet Collection Volume 2.