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Old Meets New on Milwaukee Ballet Stage

The classic ‘La Sylphide’ double-billed with ‘Sans Pleurer’

Apr. 4, 2017
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Photo Credit: Nathaniel Davauer

One of history’s oldest existing ballets and—for a moment—its very newest, will stand hand in hand embodied by Milwaukee Ballet’s dancers with live orchestral accompaniment. August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, classical in style and romantic in view, premiered in Copenhagen in 1836. Timothy O’Donnell’s resolutely contemporary Sans Pleurer (Without Crying) premieres at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on April 6.


Classic Ballet 

“There is one older ballet that survives with its original choreography but it’s rarely performed,” says Dinna Bjørn, one of the world’s few experts on the Bournonville style and tradition. She’s here to teach La Sylphide to the dancers—not just the moves and their meaning but the roots. She learned Bournonville as a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB), the company he directed and for which he made many works. The RDB kept La Sylphide intact, passing it from generation to generation. Bjørn retired from dancing, spent 12 years as artistic director of the Norwegian National Ballet and seven as director of the Finnish National Ballet. Now she teaches La Sylphide from memory to companies across the planet.

“I feel the responsibility,” she says, “especially nowadays when all the companies bring in dancers from everywhere, which is wonderful, but it’s even more important that those who know specific styles are teaching them. Every dancer is trained in one kind of program—so when you do this with the leg you automatically do so-and-so with the arm. Suddenly to break that habit can be very difficult.”

I had the honor of watching her teach and stage several scenes. The style is light with an especially graceful use of the shoulders and upper body against rapid footwork. It’s never grandiose. It supports expressive acting and a personal relation to the music. Bournonville spent three years with the Paris Opera Ballet and his style is based in an early 19th-century French style now lost. While in Paris, he saw a ballet about woodland sylphs, or fairies, starring the great Marie Taglioni, among the first ballerinas to wear point shoes. It inspired his storyline but Bournonville wanted equal opportunities for male dancers and a strong role for himself. 

So he created James, a Scotsman who, engaged to marry Effie, dreams of a beautiful sylph on his wedding day. When he wakes, she’s there. He abandons Effie for a life with this spirit. The village sorceress Madge gives him a scarf, which she says will turn the sylph human. The end is tragic, the tale quintessentially romantic. When I mention that this view arose in response to the catastrophe of the French Revolution, Bjørn agreed: “It has a lot to do with politics. There are many ways to interpret it and I always like the dancers to have freedom to see their own story in it. What of Madge, this dark creature who is guilt, the dark side of the pursuit of ideals, the consequence of James’ choice to leave Effie? She’s more real than the sylph who belongs to the world of dreams.”


Contemporary Ballet

“Right now in this world of social media you get so desensitized that nothing has an impact. So I think right now art is so important because it’s this other way of expressing something that we’re not desensitized to,” says O’Donnell. “I’m so blessed to have this platform to share things that I think are important. I don’t want to just put nice steps to music; I think that’s a wasted opportunity to communicate.”

A male friend’s bout with depression led O’Donnell to study the illness. “Men often don’t get diagnosed because they don’t have the emotional strength to talk about how they feel,” he says. “So they only go to doctors when they have physical symptoms, which often come from depression. The suicide rates for young men are so much higher than for young women. As time went on, I became interested in how we got to that point, how we raise men. It’s such a normal thing to say to a young boy, come on now, be a big boy, don’t cry. Still, in this modern culture, we’re brought up to be warriors, whether we know it or not.”

So Milwaukee Ballet’s multitalented resident choreographer worked with nine of the company’s male dancers to examine those realities in personal terms. Sans Pleurer translates as “without crying.” It’s a non-linear, non-narrative exposition of contemporary maleness. Fellow resident choreographer Petr Zahradnícek created a set that is part locker room, part jungle gym, part brain. The dancers wear suits with symbolic red linings. “I didn’t want the clichés of what you’d expect male dancers to be doing,” O’Donnell says. “There are two ways to see it: that all the men are manifestations of one character and his emotional states or that they’re individuals in their community.”

April 6-9 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.


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