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Family Affair

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Bournonville | Peter Schaufuss

Queensland Ballet | London Coliseum

Peter SchaufussLa Sylphide is very much a family affair: Schaufuss’ parents, principals with the Royal Danish Ballet, appeared in the Bournonville classic when he was a child, and he later took on the leading role of James during his own career with RDB. In 1979 Schaufuss produced the ballet for London Festival Ballet (now ENB), and come 2015 his own son and daughter are guest dancing with Queensland Ballet during its restaging of their father’s work. The Schaufuss siblings aren’t in just any old roles, either; they’re playing James and the titular Sylphide (though not on the same night for obvious reasons).

The production is a straightforward Romantic shout, complete with two acts, Degas-length tutus and a spectral corps. It nods to Bourneville’s 1836 arrangement, one of the oldest surviving ballets in the world, with its character miming and willowy aesthetic while factoring in some sharpish modern lines and footwork. The story – in which Highlander James loses his heart to an enigmatic sylph – remains virtually untouched.

Luke Schaufuss was confident and controlled in his turn as James, squeezing crisp beats and soaring leaps into what was at times a breakneck tempo. His energy flagged a little in the second act, when a demanding round of tours en l’air eluded him, but it revived (ironically so) during his death scene. Sarah Thomson, meanwhile, offered a pleasingly dainty Sylphide, handling the choreography’s gentle curves and finicky allegro with poise and care. It took her a little while to encipher her character – it was unclear during the early scenes whether she was going for impish or innocent – but she eventually reconciled this, opting for innocent, and it became easy to lose myself in her excellent technique, particularly her nimble, sturdy turns. I found her mature stature a neat complement to Shaufuss’ boyish James, who’s forever chasing after the Sylphide like a child in pursuit of an elusive butterfly.

The corps had its weak links but overall put in a commendable performance. In between fluttery arms and weightless bourrés, the sylphs managed long lines and sprightly glissades. That said, it was the tartan-clad villagers, with their high spirits and folksy charm, who actually stole the show for me: their raucous wedding ceilidh is one of the evening’s best scenes, a vibrant whirlwind of spins and claps, kilts flying and feet stomping.

Speaking of vibrant, the set and costumes are dazzling as they come: between act one’s gothic manor and act two’s lush forest, Schaufuss presents a landscape that’s glittery and enchanting but stops short of cartoonish. His vision edges towards flamboyant with the camp costuming of Madge the witch – Greg Horsman, kitted out with ratty hair, a prosthetic nose and a coven of likewise unsightly minions – but he reels the ostentation back in with the rest of the cast, particularly the sylphs, who look heavenly in elegant green tulle and flower wreaths. One of the production’s prettiest pictures is the Sylphide peering in on James through a window, soft blue light trickling in from the woodland behind her; a close runner-up is our heroine prancing around James and Effie as they commence their wedding march, her delicate white tutu and gossamer wings a sharp contrast to the couple’s hardy red tartan. The choreography here, as it does in many parts of the production, takes somewhat of a backseat to the visuals, but the result is pretty all the same.

photo | ©Queensland Ballet

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