In the history of ballet, La Sylphide stands out. It dates to 1832 when it was first performed in Paris.
Then it moved to Copenhagen where the story of the fragile female spirit, known as a Sylphe, who was stalked and ultimately destroyed by an obsessed Scottish laird, was given a Danish twist or two by the choreographer August Bournonville.
Now for the first time in more than a decade, the National Ballet of Canada has staged this venerable work and is bringing the Danish choreographer Johan Kobborg’s reimagining to the National Arts Centre for three nights starting on April 7.
For the National’s artistic director, La Sylphide “still holds an incredible charm (for audiences and dancers alike) and extraordinarily difficult challenges for the artists.”
The actual accomplishment of the steps and the stamina required for this ballet is daunting, says Karen Kain.
“There is an enormous amount of big athletic jumps and there is a lot of very quick footwork, a lot of beats as we call them, or batterie en français. The dancers use their legs and feet in a way that may not be that familiar.”
There is a connection to Danish ballet that runs through the National, Kain says, “because of the legacy of people like (the legendary Danish dancer) Erik Bruhn.”
As long as Kain can remember, La Sylphide has been part of the company’s repertoire.
“When I was in the ballet school in the ’60s I saw Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev performing La Sylphide. It was extremely popular and performed on a regular basis.”
While it might be seen as quaint, it is a classic tale of unrequited love that still seems to work today, Kain says.
“She isn’t a real woman, she’s a spirit. In his life, he has an adorable fiancée, it’s his wedding day and he makes a choice to pursue something that isn’t real and that he can’t even touch.
“He’s taken over by the thought of her and completely willing to give up everything he has and it ends very badly for him and for her. She dies because he wants to touch her and it kills her.
“This is one of those stories that you say ,’OK, am I really going to believe this?’ It requires a suspension of disbelief.
“Your heart is broken at the end. It’s like you have killed a hummingbird. That’s the touching part. That’s why it is still engaging.”
As fantasy of all sorts is very much in vogue from video games to Game of Thrones, this 134-year-old ballet just might have a new audience.
“It’s charming,” Kain says. “Everybody wears their Scottish regalia. Having a little bit of Scottish blood, I really like that. There is something deeply moving and spiritual about the main part of the story.
“I think that’s the reason that this ballet still exists besides the fact that it still has these challenges for young artists of today who want to test themselves against the great works of the past. It’s like a young actor wanting to do the great plays of the great writers and know that he or she has enough skill to be able to pull it off at a very high level.”
She knows that dance audiences love contemporary work, but she says she believes that when historical work is done well, with good technique and with lots of heart, it can become new again.
“La Sylphide is an international ballet, Kain says. “Every company of a certain rank pits themselves against doing La Sylphide.”
There is, she believes, an obligation to the history of the art form.
“We move forward but we build on the past. These old ballets, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and La Sylphide, they still challenge every dancer. You are really not a ballet dancer of a certain rank if you can’t do these. It’s a huge test.”
In the end, though, the dollar talks. If people didn’t come to the show, she wouldn’t schedule it in a season.
“In fact, most people in Toronto came to the performance going ‘What’s this?’ and they were drawn into its charm. Not everybody, of course, but mostly. I wasn’t sure because it had been so long since we had done it. But it turns out ballet audiences like the whole spectrum of work.”
The National Ballet of Canada and the National Arts Centre have a close relationship built over many years.
The NAC’s dance and music departments have commissioned a new work for 2016-17 by one of the National’s dancer/choreographers, Guillaume Côté.
Kain says she will need to see the work before she can decide where it fits in the National’s programming schedule. It will have to find its slot. But she is clearly pleased with the idea of the NAC commissioning new work.
“It is totally the responsibility of an organization like the NAC, which is funded by taxpayers. This is what they should be doing and I think it’s fantastic. The NAC exists for all of us and they should be pushing the boundaries like this.”
This is Kain’s 10th year as the artistic director of the National.
At the time of this interview, she said she was feeling fatigued at the end of a long season.
“My day starts in the morning and finishes at 11 p.m. After a while, that becomes draining. But that’s my only complaint.”
She is most proud of the fact that the National has returned to the international stage for several years in a row. They have been to London, Los Angeles twice, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. twice. This summer, the company will be part of the Lincoln Center’s summer festival in New York.
“This was one of my major goals, to be back on the world stage, and we have great plans for future tours to important places. But I wish we could tour across Canada again but we can only go to places that can afford us. We are not allowed to lose money. We have to balance our budget every year.
“It used to be that we toured Canada because we were supported to do that. In those days there weren’t as many wonderful companies across the country already performing in major centres. It’s a different landscape now. It’s just too expensive (to take a big show across Canada).”
The one place the National can bring bigger ballets to is the NAC in Ottawa.
“The NAC is the only theatre in Canada that has the ability to subsidize companies from across the country. That’s as it should be. That’s the reason we come to Ottawa every year.”
The company does send smaller works to places like Montreal and Vancouver, but not Swan Lake or La Sylphide.
Kain does feel a great responsibility to the history of the National Ballet of Canada. The baton has been passed to her from some great names, such as Celia Franca and James Kudelka.
“It’s a huge responsibility. I’m one of those old-fashioned people who believes in true excellence in whatever you go for. That’s a necessity, especially for a major dance company.”
She will be in Ottawa on April 7, as she always is when the National comes here.
“I go on all the tours and I attend all the shows unless there is some kind of dire emergency. It means too much to me not to witness it. Once that curtain goes up, I’m good.”
National Ballet of Canada
Where: Southam Hall
When: April 7 -9 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca