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Boston Ballet kicks off with the fantastical

The company brings a road-tested 'La Sylphide' to the fall lineup

It's too bad local dance fans couldn't have tagged along on Boston Ballet's recent six-week tour of Spain. In the company's first overseas venture in more than 16 years, it garnered sold-out houses and standing ovations at international festivals across the country, including one with the queen of Spain in attendance. Chatting by phone from the Barcelona airport, artistic director Mikko Nissinen called the tour "simply amazing," saying that the dancers were performing extremely well and spirits were high.

But even those of us left behind should benefit from the venture, as the company, after performing a gala Oct. 12, kicks off the season Oct. 18 with a ballet it has had lots of opportunity on the road to fine-tune, August Bournonville's "La Sylphide." The oldest existing choreography in the classical ballet repertoire and the first great romantic ballet, Bournonville's 1836 masterpiece presents the wistful, fantastical fable of a young man who abandons his fiancee when he becomes enraptured by the vision of a bewitching sylph.

Set to a score by Herman Lovenskjold, the ballet is the epitome of Bournonville's distinctive lyrical aesthetic, full of grace and buoyancy. Sorella Englund, one of Royal Danish Ballet's most extraordinary dramatic ballerinas for many years and an exceptional interpreter/coach of the choreographer's style, staged the work for Boston Ballet in 2005. In preparation for the tour of Spain, "she came back to help us with the details, and the dancers are pretty much mastering the style," Nissinen says. "I'm ready to put this company next to any company in the world dancing 'La Sylphide.' "

The production has certainly been put to the test, with dancers performing in all kinds of unfamiliar conditions, including a variety of stages, with live and taped music. But successful touring can provide artistic validation and confidence, so it should be interesting to see how the production has evolved since it was last performed two years ago.

"With the added tour performances, the dancers have a chance to get deeper into the pieces, and that's how the art form was meant to function," Nissinen says. And the travel itself, he believes, has helped broaden the dancers, some of whom had never been outside the United States. "It's a real eye-opener," he says.

Primary casting for the Boston performances is still to be announced. Erica Cornejo performed with Roman Rykine in the work's overseas debut, with Lorna Feijóo and Carlos Molina, Karine Seneca and Yury Yanovsky, and Misa Kuranaga and Nelson Madrigal also taking turns as the star couple. Larissa Ponomarenko was injured and didn't dance the prima ballerina role on tour, but Nissinen hopes she will be back in time for the Boston run.

"La Sylphide" was last performed as a stand-alone program. But this season Nissinen is pairing the ballet with two rarely performed Balanchine/Stravinsky works, "Monumentum pro Gesualdo" and "Movements for Piano and Orchestra," which the company first performed in 2003. The Balanchine works will open the program.

" 'Gesualdo' is like going to church, it has such simplicity, such patterns, it touches your soul in such a beautiful way," Nissinen says. " 'Movements for Piano and Orchestra' is one of the finest examples of modernism, so pristinely clear, such brilliance. I can't get enough of work like this. And both works really teach the company about understatement."

The program offers an intriguing study in contrasts, part of Nissinen's ongoing plan to create a satisfying yet varied repertoire for the company: "While these are two incredible works by Balanchine, it will leave everybody in a neutral place to be able to take in the romanticism of 'La Sylphide,' like a sorbet to balance the taste buds."

Oct. 18-28, Wang Theatre. 800-447-7400, bostonballet.org, tele charge.com.

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