Houston Ballet resurrects ‘La Sylphide,’ premieres ‘Sparrow’ in breezy program

Houston Ballet’s final program of the season felt forward-looking on Saturday, even though “La Sylphide” is the ultimate museum piece and Stanton Welch’s new “Sparrow,” the company’s fourth premiere in recent weeks, takes the audience on a retro time trip with its music and costumes.

“Sparrow” breezes swiftly through the recorded music of six Simon & Garfunkel songs that date from the duo’s first album in 1964 to 1970, when they split up. The dancers wear deep jewel-toned turtlenecks and slim-fitting corduroy bell-bottoms, moving through Lisa J. Pinkham’s sometimes shadowy lighting and a few moments of drifting fog that evoke the sense of a fever dream from another era, as if we’re peeking into a well-mannered club scene.

A crowd-pleasing ensemble piece for 19 men and five women, “Sparrow” seamlessly blends taut energy and fluid expansiveness. Choreographically, it’s a little bit of a love child, finding kinetic drama with big groups (a Welch signature) and bodies that often tilt as if suspended (shades of Christopher Bruce and Jiří Kylián). Welch, who has favored heavy emotional business in the past, tempers that here and lets the movement do the talking.

The dance opens in a stance that turns out to be less aggressive than it first appears, with a stage full of bodies facing the audience and punching the air with bent elbows behind a fitful figure (the dynamic Christopher Gray), using the percussiveness of “ Cecilia” to good effect. Breakout solos bring some fresh faces spectacularly into the spotlight. Demi-soloist Simone Acri’s explosive, airborne pyrotechnics and blazing fouetté turns amped up “Baby Driver,” while corps dancer Neal Burks was gracefully smooth in the more vulnerable and grounded acrobatics of the death-themed title song. The women, who had “Scarborough Fair” to themselves, were all a delight. (Throughout much of the entire ballet, MacKenzie Richter was the eyeball magnet, with her crisp, commanding air.)

It’s been so long since the company wiped the cobwebs from its “La Sylphide” that the lead dancers in all three first-weekend casts were debuting in their roles. The August Bournonville choreography dates to 1836; it’s the oldest ballet in existence and the precursor of all of the white tutu fests that followed. Houston’s production dates to 1987, with sets and costumes by David Walker.

Bournonville’s ballet premiered at the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen four years after the famous Marie Taglioni performed the first “La Sylphide” in Paris. (Taglioni dazzled the world by dancing en pointe and also showing off her legs in — gasp! — a mid-calf skirt now widely beloved as the Romantic tutu.) Bournonville deepened the narrative, gave the male lead more to do and ginned up the fast beating feet throughout.

Today, it’s Bournonville’s speedy footwork and stylized upper body movements — those angled torsos and airy port de bras, or arm positions — that render “La Sylphide” worth revisiting. On Saturday, maestro Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra also made Herman Severin Lovenskjold’s score worth hearing, richly evoking the ballet’s stark juxtapositions of brooding darkness and blissful weightlessness. But Florio did set a brisk pace, and there were moments — especially during the pas de deux of Act 2 — when Saturday’s performance felt rushed.

The story begins as the Sylph awakes the Scottish farmer James from a nap on what is supposed to be his wedding day. He’s quickly besotted, abandoning his bride-to-be, Effie. But before that, he rudely tries to eject Madge, a fortune teller and witch, from the wedding party. Madge predicts that Effie will marry another suitor, the farmer Gurn, who is on to James’ infatuation with the Sylph. The crone makes good on her predictions in Act 2, vengefully turning a gossamer scarf into a deadly weapon that the unwitting James will present to the Sylph as they dance through the forest glade, killing her. When he sees Effie and Gurn happily parading off together and the Sylph’s body ascending to the sky, he collapses. End of story.

The Sylph is sweet and, well, sprightly, but also a fragile winged thing. First soloist Allison Miller brought something different to the role, charmingly innocent but with a wisp of mischief in her, too. Her joy was infectious, and she almost literally flew across the stage in those bent-leg Bournonville grand jetes, which looked as natural as her smile.

When: 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday

Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.

Tickets: $25-$208; 713-227-2787, houstonballet.org


Guest artist Chase O’Connell was a likeable James, neither a yearning figure nor a cad. He’s a super tall, handsome dancer who gets miles of air under him as he spins and leaps; I do wish the spins had looked more effortless Saturday. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to see O’Connell when the 2022-23 season begins in September; he and his wife, the ballerina Beckanne Sisk, have joined Houston Ballet from Ballet West as principals. (Some ballet goers may have been lucky enough to see them perform together during “The Nutcracker” at Wortham Theater Center last winter.)

Melody Mennite played Madge to almost endearingly comic effect. Luzenberg Santa also brought levity to his scenes as the frustrated Gurn, imitating the Sylph; and Jacquelyn Long gave Effie a spoiled, slightly stiff nature. The corps carried the dreamy mood well during Act 2’s white tutu scenes, led by the light-footed Yuriko Kajiya (Queen of the Sylphs) and Lead Sylphs Aoi Fujiwara and Chae Eun Yang.

Getting the stylized technique down is one thing, but “La Sylphide” also needs nuanced acting and an unhurried pace. Much of the cast I saw still needs some polishing in that regard. They’re versatile and beautiful dancers, but after the lapse of the pandemic, the rigors of George Balanchine’s “Jewels” and a lot of new contemporary work, this 186-year old ballet feels a little outside their wheelhouse right now.

“La Sylphide” was a late addition to the season, replacing Welch’s “Madame Butterfly” because of shipping issues with sets and costumes. Its blunt narrative is a curiosity that in some ways feels sadly of-the-moment outside the theater: Revenge wins. There’s no paen to the enduring value of love that pervades, say, a classic like “Swan Lake.” The real pleasure of experiencing it is watching the dancers grow artistically, which they will, with more time onstage. Giving so many of them their first opportunities to take “La Sylphide” for a spin is definitely more about looking forward than back. Three performances remain, with rotating casts, this weekend.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.