Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
"La Sylphide," originally choreographed by Filippo Taglioni, may have kicked off the era of the Romantic ballet with its premiere in Paris in 1832. But Thursday night, in Boston Ballet's performance of August Bournonville's version of the classic, it continued to ring with timeless truths.
That was due, in large part, to the vibrant staging of the 1836 ballet by Sorella Englund, a former principal with the Royal Danish Ballet, of which Bournonville was choreographer and director for some 40 years. But it also owed a great deal to the Boston Ballet's own Erica Cornejo, who portrayed the at once ethereal and cunning Sylph.
"La Sylphide" is simultaneously an homage to and a warning against the blind pursuit of the ephemeral and ideal in a world made of rock and clay and others' expectations.
James, a Scottish peasant, is set to marry the lovely but modest Effie. But on the day of his wedding, a magical sylph appears to him, and he finds himself powerless to resist her. The simple plot is complicated by Madge, the village sorceress, who takes offense - and swears revenge - when James ousts her from the festivities. She bonds in spite, it seems, with James's friend Gurn, who loves Effie and finds James's infidelity unspeakable.
Cornejo has done more than master the Bournonville style - the fingertips perched beneath her chin, the twist in her upper back that turns her body from a plane to a three-dimensional spiral reverberating from within, the hummingbird bourrees and shuddering beats. In her penultimate scene, James - in an effort to capture her as his own - has wrapped her in a scarf that Madge has provided to "aid" him in his quest. But the scarf is poison. Cornejo's wings drop to the ground. As she dies, she inches forward, gently rocking. Her arms, limp and flailing yet utterly controlled, reach out as if she's suddenly blind. The ending is predictable, and could be sentimental. But in Cornejo's hands it echoes with pathos and the terror of mortality, with the universal devastation that comes from the crashing of a dream.
Roman Rykine as James is supple and convincing. His entrechats and jumps soar and rebound - and have a rigorous counterpoint in the traditional Bournonville arms, held down framing his torso till they crack open like a smile as he soars into a buoyant leap.
Reyneris Reyes as Gurn melds his exuberant dancing with clear mime; he never overacts yet his messages zing home, whether he's pointing to his eyes to indicate he, alone save for James, has seen the Sylph, or making his arms into bird wings to indicate her mode of transport. Elizabeth Olds as Madge, all white-faced and haggard, leans on her stick-cane and cackles with the mirthless delight of not only a witch but of a woman scorned. Yet her portrayal was marred - not as forceful as that of other Madges, who have nearly taken center stage.
George Balanchine's "Serenade," which opened the program, could not have been at a further remove from the dark sorcery of the Scottish countryside in "La Sylphide." A neo-Romantic masterpiece of dissolving and emerging patterns, "Serenade" is the first ballet that the great dance-maker choreographed in this country.
It is a construction of elegiac proportions. Set to Tchaikovsky's lush score, "Serenade" opens with 17 women in long white tulle who inhabit a world where the earth moves with the flex of a wrist or with the snap of feet from parallel to first position. Configurations of dancers merge and disperse, shaping not just their bodies but the space that surrounds them. The back of a wrist repeatedly comes to rest on a brow. A small group of women, holding hands, form a garland, then melt into a circle, their heads touching at its center.
Seeping through the geometric shiftings was a story: a woman's (Larissa Ponomarenko) collapse and deliverance by an angel of death. Movement - abstract at its core - tells a story, with heart.
Melanie Atkins shone in this dance, her long limbs stretching into endless arcs and lines as she anticipated the notes of the score, adding to her musicality.