From ‘Chopiniana’ to ‘Les Sylphides’: Memories of a Russian ballet classic
By Jv Ramos
The imagery of a man being surrounded by fairies in the woods – such as that depicted in the ballet classic Chopiniana – is now considered as an artistic spectacle. But there was a time when presenting something like this was risky, especially in Russia in the late 1800s to early 1900s, an era when the public favored story ballets.
“At that time, non-story ballets didn't do well. But this one succeeded. It became a stand-alone piece that served as a sort of front act for short story ballets. Russians want to spend many hours at the ballet, so the shows had to be longer,” notes Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde as the company prepares to restage Chopiniana as part of its season finale, Deux.
A budding choreographer named Michael Fokine – then only 26 – created a ballet that broke away from the classical ballet tradition championed by Marius Petipa. Called Chopiniana as it uses music written by Frederic Chopin, it was first presented as a “romantic reverie” at a charity event in St. Petersburg in 1907, followed by another charity performance at the Maryinsky Theater in the same city in March 1908.
When it premiered in Paris in June 1909, with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Chopiniana had been reschristened as Les Sylphides. Records note that the premiere featured Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Baldina and Vaslav Nijinsky as the principal dancers.
Fokine was able to make his non-narrative “poet with sylphs” ballet work, as it veered away from fancy stunts, and focused on meticulous corps de ballet work and movement that’s dictated by music. It would typify what would be known as the “ballet blanc” or white ballet – a conception of dance based on ethereal atmosphere, soft music and diaphanous white costumes.
According to written sources, the long white tutu that Pavlova originally danced in, and that the entire female corps de ballet adopted soon after, was designed by Léon Bakst and inspired by a lithograph of Marie Taglioni dressed as a sylph.
Lisa had seen the ballet several times in Russia while she was a student at the Leningrad Choreographic Institute in St. Petersburg in the early 1980s. “I remember I watched it being rehearsed and performed in my first year in the school as it was in the graduation concerts of the 8th class girls, while I was in the 7th level. I really enjoy the old style – the arms, head, upper body. The ballet is just so pretty and musical.”
Due to its groundbreaking nature and its creator’s affiliation with several ballet companies, Les Sylphides was warmly received in major cities in Europe. In 1911, it debuted in the United States where it similarly awed audiences.
“Fokine was a genius,” praises Lisa. “Chopiniana has no story, just one music after another. It's one rare ballet of that era, an abstract choreographic miniature.”
The Balletgoer’s Guide by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp describes Les Sylphides ss one of the revolutionary works of the 20th century. “It reasserted the lyrical and poetic qualities of ballet at a time when brilliantly-faceted virtuosity contained in the setting of a mammoth full-length ballet by Petipa was the norm.”
In 1988, the Philippine Ballet Theatre premiered the ballet piece in Manila as Les Sylphides, as restaged by the choreographer and teacher Basilio (Steve Villaruz). The production featured then PBT principal dancer Lisa Macuja and soloist Osias Barroso, now Ballet Manila co-artistic director in the lead roles along with Melanie Motus and Veronica Amor.
Writing in The Manila Chronicle in 1988, ballet critic Tita Radaic praised the lead performances. “Osias Barroso, dancing the poet’s role, proved to be a sincere and mature artist, well in command of technique, and with an understanding of this subtle and sensitive role. Many a time, the poet’s role has been overacted and exaggerated. Barroso intelligently drew away from the pitfall, and danced with subdued feeling and style, revealing danseur noble qualities.”
She continued: “Lisa Macuja stood out among the female soloists with her light-footed rendition of the Mazurka. She literally breezed through the moon-lit stage in her incredibly fast, running ‘bourrees’ and held her balance like a breath. In the famous pas de deux, she and Barroso danced a dream-like duet, which was a lyrical vision.”
Flash forward to 2000. By then, Lisa and Osias had already founded their own company, Ballet Manila. That year, under then BM artistic director Eric V. Cruz, the company would offer Les Sylphides as one-half of its twinbill season-opener, paired with The Naughty Daughter (La Fille Mal Gardee), at GSIS Theater.
To make sure that Les Sylphides was presented in its pure form, with every move conveying stillness and inward strength, Lisa sought the guidance of her Russian teacher, Tatiana Udalenkova. She came to Manila with her husband, People’s Artist of Russia Serguei Vikulov, to coach the company for this restaging.
“Les Sylphides is the favorite ballet of Tatiana Udalenkova to rehearse and watch being performed,” recalls Lisa. For her mentor, such a “period” piece helps strengthen a company as it could only be executed well by a cast that’s strictly classically trained.
Curiously, while Lisa completed the rehearsals then, Lisa ultimately did not get to dance it with Ballet Manila because of her pregnancy.
Columnist Rina Jimenez-David wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer how the Ballet Manila performance struck her: “Without the distractions of acting and story, Chopiniana is a technically demanding piece, especially on the corps, the young dancers excelling in their coordination, grace and expression. Despite its simplicity, Chopiniana filled this member of the audience with soft, warm, dreamy feelings, testifying to classical ballet’s power to move and uplift, a power attained by a company only with hard work, discipline and an absolute refusal to compromise exacting standards.”
Now, after 18 years, Ballet Manila is finally resurrecting the Fokine classic for its season-ender come March. Why did it take so long for the company to bring it back? “I think one of the reasons it has not been performed in a while is because the style that the ballet needs to be danced in is so specific, and it takes a lot of time to assimilate, especially in the corps de ballet,” explains Lisa.
But upon observing the capabilities of her current pool of ballerinas, she and Barroso agreed that Chopiniana – the title they chose to use this time – was ready for restaging. It was only fitting as this was the classical piece that would perfectly complement Martin Lawrance’s contemporary new choreography for Ballet Manila, the Beatles-inspired The Winding Road in Deux.
“[Performing] Chopiniana was actually suggested by Osias and I jumped on the idea,” points out Lisa. “It’s about time! Ballet Manila is ready for this.”
Principal dancers Abigail Oliveiro, Joan Emery Sia, Romeo Peralta and Elpidio Magat have been busy rehearsing the lead parts of Chopiniana under the watchful eyes of BM’s artistic directors. Other company artists, as well as junior company members and trainees will also be featured in the corps de ballet.
Asked what tips she gives the ballerinas in taking on Chopiniana, having danced as a sylph herself in the past, Lisa replies, “There is a specific way of tilting your upper body in a combination of arms, head, hands and upper back. That's the challenge of dancing the sylphs. [It’s] all in the upper body.”
Subtle yet expressive, delicate yet executed with strength, this ballet is testing the discipline and artistry of Ballet Manila’s dancers. Chopiniana also underlines tradition and how preserving the old and resurrecting it can bring about a new appreciation for the dance form.
“I am really excited to present this again to our audiences after such a long time. It's really a ballet that is for the ‘old soul inside us all’,” says Lisa.
Additional information sourced from the Ballet Manila Archives