Sylphs on Shaker Square
By Elsa Johnson & Victor Lucas
Ballet is more than a hierarchy of tricks. Ballet competitions notwithstanding, emotion, character and story also have a place on the ballet stage and once in a while a ballet reminds dancers and audiences of the importance of emotional expression. A century-old ballet that clocks in at a modest 30 minutes, Les Sylphides makes a succinct and compelling case for the power of ballet to express feeling.
So when we heard that a local ballet studio was preparing a family-friendly concert that includes Les Sylphides, we started by speaking with Courtney Laves-Mearini, Artistic and Executive Director of the studio and company of Cleveland City Dance.
Cool Cleveland: Why is it important for young dancers to perform Les Sylphides? Why is it important for dance audiences to see Les Sylphides?
Courtney Laves: Members of a dance company need to learn different stylizations in order to become more diverse performers. And I feel it’s important for members of the audience to see where ballet has come from and where it’s going.
Les Sylphides is a beautiful, Romantic ballet from the turn of the century, 1909, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine. In its graceful, ethereal movement referencing things not of this world it looks back to an earlier ballet, La Sylphide (1832), in which Marie Taglioni laid the groundwork for the Romantic ballet.
In Les Sylphides the dancers appear in beautiful, long, white, traditional tutus patterned after those worn by Taglioni in La Sylphide. Since they are portraying sylphs, a type of fairy, you can see the wings on the backs of their costumes.
Tell us more about the relationship between costuming and the style of dancing in Les Sylphides.
Clothing at the turn of the century dictated certain limitations on movement. Back then women still wore corsets. There was no elastic, no nylon. Dancers, like the population at large, were confined, so the movements which we see in those Romantic ballets are more restricted than contemporary movement.
Looking back to earlier clothing helps today’s dancers understand Romantic stylization. Dancers back then couldn’t bend at the waist as much as we can in modern, contemporary ballets. The arms could not lift overhead as easily because sleeves were off the shoulder. All that lost freedom of movement meant that the dancing had to be beautiful from the shoulders up with a big emphasis on performing persona. Dresses reached to mid calf, which meant that footwork had to be spectacularly fast, petite and crisp.
The use of the upper body, the beautiful shoulders, the tilt of the head, and the beautiful arm movements were all indicative of what was considered socially appropriate at the turn of the century, but they’re also part of the choreography and the style, imbedded in Les Sylphides.
In order to give my dancers a clearer understanding of how to use their arms in a Romantic ballet, I have them roll their bra straps or their leotard off their shoulders. Then if they try to lift their arms overhead without popping the straps back onto their shoulders they’ll find their range of movement reduced by 20 or 30 degrees; their arms end up more forward, rounder, and softer — and that’s part of what goes into the beautiful, delicate style of a Romantic ballet like Les Sylphides.
So Les Sylphides looks back but as you mentioned it also looks forward?
Yes. The company that presented Les Sylphides in Paris in 1909, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, brought with it many innovators. Neoclassicism, radical innovation, and the Jazz Age were just around the corner.
When today’s dancers master the soft, rounded lines and the light, ethereal movement of Les Sylphides, they are better prepared to portray emotion, character, and story in other Romantic ballets such as Giselle (1841). But Les Sylphides also looks forward to plotless, abstract ballets of much later years; it uses Romantic style of movement to develop emotion and character, but without a story. We see the Sylphs and the Poet together on a moonlit night, we know who they are and how they feel, but there’s no dramatic incident, no narrative.
Talking with the young women performing in Les Sylphides, we asked them for their insights on Les Sylphides and their outlook for the future. First we spoke with Madeline Murphy.
Cool Cleveland: We understand you’re a graduating high school senior, and that you’re going to continue in dance.
Madeline Murphy: I am continuing in dance. I’m going to Kent State University for their modern dance program.
You’ve been doing mostly ballet at CCD? Since you were how old?
I’ve been taking ballet here since I was 7. I love ballet so I’m kind of nervous to be doing mostly modern at Kent but I’ll be doing ballet there, too, so we’ll give it a year and hopefully it will help me to figure out what I really want.
You’ve probably done at least an annual recital performance here, which involves a lot of rehearsal, a lot of time dancing with your classmates and fellow company members. Why do you want to do all that work?
It’s very rewarding. At the end you’re really happy and proud of yourself and Courtney’s usually proud of you. You’re exhausted, but it’s good to put your all into something and to have it work out.
How is dancing in Les Sylphides different from the other ballets you’ve performed in?
Les Sylphides is Romantic ballet so there’s not a lot of tricks or turns or big jumps. Instead, it’s all about the arms being placed a certain way, very stylized and different from the other pieces we’ve done. We did Pas de Quatre 2 years ago and that’s also Romantic ballet. Melanie (Dennis) and I are the only 2 who have done Pas de Quatre, though, so none of the other girls have worked in this style before.
Tell us more about your part in Les Sylphides. So there’s a corps de ballet of sylphs, 3 solo sylphs…
Yes, 3 female soloists and 2 demisoloists. Melanie and I are the demisoloists; we lead the corps and we also do a few things by ourselves. Also I’m understudying the first soloist. I like her dance a lot because I’m not big on tricks.
Can you give us some idea of the back-and-forth between you and Courtney?
Courtney will tell us to do the step, but if the stylization isn’t right then she’s not happy with it, because dance isn’t just about doing steps. You have to perform them and Courtney’s really big on performing, which means that you have to really do the steps – like, elongate your lines – and Courtney says you have to keep the audience involved in your steps. You have to realize you’re dancing for other people, not just yourself.
Next we spoke with Barbara Craig.
Cool Cleveland: What will you be doing in Les Sylphides?
Barbara Craig: I’ll either be a soloist, dancing the second variation or a demisoloist. The second variation is 2 minutes of all jumps; really, really fun.
How is it dancing in Les Sylphides?
Again, the stylization is very different. It’s Romantic ballet. Also the music is Chopin and it’s very powerful – absolutely gorgeous. And when you get to do the slow sections it’s not just about technique but also the feeling of the movement, and that’s my favorite, because I’m not a technical person. I much prefer performing and feeling the music; when you really dance you become part of the music.
You really like the Chopin a lot.
I’ve always liked classical music but the Chopin in particular makes an immediate connection with the audience. It’s not like Stravinsky where sometimes there’s a disconnect.
That’s a well-chosen pair of composers you mention. (As we had learned flipping through our dance history books, the music in Les Sylphides provides a concrete example of how an apparently ultraconservative ballet, Les Sylphides, brought radical change with it. At least one of the Chopin piano pieces was orchestrated for Les Sylphides by Igor Stravinsky, which gave that composer access to Diaghilev and his circle. When other composers failed to produce a commissioned score for the 1910 season, Stravinsky was next in line with his first composition for the Ballet Russe, Firebird.)
And the dancing in Les Sylphides is simple enough and not too flamboyant.
A well chosen word, “flamboyant.” (We had read of how Taglioni achieved a popular success in La Sylphide because in her dancing she eschewed the flamboyance of her competitors. In La Sylphide and in later examples of Romantic ballet, the dancers concealed their efforts and their dynamics were muted).
How is dancing in Les Sylphides different from walking around on Shaker Square?
(laughing) Well, I get to be a fairy. Sometimes when you’re dancing you don’t feel like a fairy; you feel you have weights strapped to you. But when you finish there’s that endorphin release and then you feel like one.
Where are you in your high school career?
I just had my last day of high school. I’m on senior project. I just have IB and AP tests (International Bacheloreate and Advanced Placement) and then I’m off to BalletMet for the professional program. And I really want to take a creative writing class. I like the arts. It’s how we show we have souls.
Next we spoke with Melanie Dennis, another 18-year-old in the CCD company. Melanie cast her lot with professional dance a few years ago when she left Cleveland to live with her father in Seattle where she studied in the professional division of Pacific Northwest Ballet. She’d received some encouragement from PNB and had hopes for — perhaps — a spot in that company.
Melanie Dennis: I was feeling out whether I wanted to be there and in the end I decided I didn’t. I used to love that place but now I guess there’s just a bad bunch of girls there. They’re all really catty. Maybe another year with a different group of girls I might fit better.
Cool Cleveland: (As we reported in a previous article, competition for scarce roles and company spots often becomes so intense that it routinely spills over into back-biting and character assassination.) A difficult personal situation so you left. Then what?
I came back to Cleveland and started dancing at CCD again and I started auditioning for professional companies. Some have been slow to get back to me, which is frustrating. Others have invited me to their summer intensives saying they’d really like to see me for the summer before they decide whether or not to put me in the company, which is what companies usually do rather than base a decision on a 90-minute audition.
Summer intensives can be very expensive or they can be on scholarship.
In the past I’ve gotten scholarships to – I believe — every single one of the summer intensives I’ve gone to. This year I applied and, no offense to the companies, I didn’t hear from them as scheduled, which meant that I missed my chance to go to my first choice while I waited for an answer about scholarship from a second choice.
At least you’re getting accepted into programs so you have some options. But the audition and application process involves travel, right? That’s a lot of time, energy, and money.
Yes. I had to travel to Pittsburgh for all my auditions. A couple years ago we had to drive to Chicago, 5 hours each way for a 2 hour audition.
What else are you doing?
I’m taking online classes for high school. I graduate in 3 weeks, maybe. I didn’t have a job in Seattle because I was under 18 and would have needed a work permit. Now there’s not time for a job with school and spending every night at the studio from about 4 to 9:30 pm.
Let’s be up front as we sum up. Watching your Coppelia in rehearsal, your training and talent are plain to see. I’m thinking of your beautiful pique arabesque en pointe where you’re standing there for a long time holding out that prop bouquet of flowers. It is something to see, but even though you’re a standout dancer, companies are not hiring and even looking for jobs is an expensive and energy-intensive business. We can hear the discouragement in your voice.
In my opinion, unless you’re a dancer, you can’t understand how much work has gone into a performance, how many hours of rehearsal over how many weeks, how many spots we’re learning. At CCD we’ve done outreach performances in the schools and I love that because the kids ask us how long we’ve been dancing, how much we rehearse.
It’s one thing to learn a solo, but it’s another thing to work as a corps like we’re doing in Les Sylphides. Everybody has to move the same way and be in the same line and have your arm at the same height. You have to be identical and that makes it a lot harder.
Yes. And even though Les Sylphides is not a virtuosic ballet, there are ways in which it is full of thankless difficulties. Everything has to look effortless. Many passages repeat 3 times, so any errors will be clearly visible to the audience.
Yes, and if you mess up in a performance that’s the one thing the audience will always remember no matter how many other things you’ve done perfectly.
That’s what we hoped for, a reality check that gives our readers some insight into the process of presenting a ballet.
On Sun 6/10/12 at 2pm at Tri-C Eastern Campus, Cleveland City Dance Company will perform Les Sylphides and a program of mixed repertoire including the children’s comedic ballet Dr. Coppelius’ Workshop. Tickets $15 adults, $10 children and seniors available in advance at CCD studio or by calling 216-295-2222. All tickets at the theater $20 cash only. Learn more about CCD at their website, http://www.ClevelandCityDance.com.
From Cool Cleveland contributors Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas. Elsa and Vic are both longtime Clevelanders. Elsa is a landscape designer. She studied ballet as an avocation for 2 decades. Vic has been a dancer and dance teacher for most of his working life, performing in a number of dance companies in NYC and Cleveland. They write about dance as a way to learn more and keep in touch with the dance community. E-mail them at vicnelsaATearthlink.net.