The naked sylph: Learning the art of the subtle and the effortless with Chopiniana
By Giselle P. Kasilag
“There are no fireworks in Chopiniana!” declares Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso. And this, he notes, has been the culprit behind the struggle of today’s young dancers in performing the classical piece.
Chopiniana (also known as Les Sylphides), a 1909 choreography by Michael Fokine, is a non-narrative ballet featuring “a poet with sylphs”. It was a revolutionary concept back then to stage a production that did not tell a story but, instead, highlighted the strength of the technique, subtlety of movement, and lyricism. Fokine’s gamble paid off and Chopiniana became a hit.
Over a hundred years later, Ballet Manila is re-staging the classic for its season-ender, Deux.
This is not, however, the first time that the company is staging the piece. Back in 2000, under the watchful eye of Tatiana Udalenkova and People’s Artist of Russia Serguei Vikulov, BM artists Eduardo Espejo, Elline Damian, and Melanie Motus led the charge in conquering this difficult choreography. It is the meticulous notes and corrections from this staging locked in Barroso’s memory that is now guiding the rehearsals today.
“The movements are slow and very different from ballet classics such as Giselle and Don Quixote. It has to flow, and float, and not jerk,” he explains.
“It's the kind of ballet that is so ‘period.’ If you're a 21st century dancer, it will only work if you're attacking it old school,” notes Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, who together with Barroso, danced Chopiniana for the first time in 1988. “It's a specific, romantic ballet, very refined. The movements are soft and pliant. The delivery has to be subtle. It takes immense technique and strength but the strength is ‘disguised.’”
In this YouTube age where one-minute clips of dancers spinning and executing complicated aerial acrobatics account for most people’s exposure to ballet, teaching the young ballerinas to slow down and focus on deliberate movements was a challenge.
“They couldn’t get it!” says Barroso, recounting the first day of rehearsals. “I would explain and demonstrate and everyone would look at me with blank faces. They couldn’t understand. Hindi mo kasi pwedeng dayain. Kitang-kita agad. Hindi madadaan sa ngiti at charm.” (You can’t cheat. It can be seen immediately. You can’t just smile and charm your way through it).
Principal dancer Joan Emery Sia, who will be dancing the lead sylph, completely agrees. In Chopiniana, there is no place to hide.
“It’s challenging because it’s very naked. I mean, despite the long skirt – they think that if it’s a long skirt, it’s easier because you don’t see what’s going on. It doesn’t have tricks so it’s not like Don Quixote. It’s very hard to hold the attention of the audience. But I like it. I can feel something when I dance it. But the hardest part is for someone who knows ballet to stare at it and see every little detail. It’s very hard to clean up, to be precise.”
This obsession with the technical details has come to define the struggle of the young dancers in learning the choreography. And each one struggles with a different aspect of the technique.
For instance, company artist Emma Zoe Harris also makes a special note of the skirt but this time in relation to the movement of her feet.
“A bit of a challenge that I’ve faced with this ballet is maintaining perfectly precise footwork. This is very important as the costumes for this ballet are romantic tutus, where only below the knees are seen so everything must be very clean!”
For principal dancer Abigail Oliveiro, who was originally slated to alternate with Sia but will be holding off her Chopiniana debut to recover from an injury, everything above the waist was a major concern.
“What was difficult was really the upper body, particularly the placement of the head and torso. It really has such a distinct style which is unique to that romantic era. It took time to be able to memorize the kind of movement and placement and then, in turn, be able to dance in it without thinking.”
Like Oliveiro, company artist Sayaka Ishibashi is also fixated on the upper body, particularly the arms and her back.
“This is my first time doing Chopiniana so it makes me think of how to use my arms during class – using my arms from my back so that my back looks like the wings are coming from them. But that ballet is really hard! You are always on pointe. You never stop the movement. You keep moving but not really moving. It’s like floating in the air. But in the corps de ballet, you have to pose but it shouldn’t look like you stopped. It’s so deep! I love that ballet so much! It’s so beautiful!” she raves, adding how much she enjoys the music of Chopin after whom the ballet is named.
Company artist Rissa May Camaclang observes keenly how deceptive Chopiniana is. As a ballet, it presents an illusion of effortlessness and grace. But achieving it is another matter.
“The rare style of the choreography is what I find most interesting,” she said. “It looks so simple but it requires a lot of stamina, strength, and proper position to achieve the movement or pose that you’ll have to do. In other words, it’s very difficult but it’s worth it.”
“Most of Chopiniana's music is actually slow. As Prelude and one of the corps de ballet, the most challenging for me is controlling every movement en pointe – dancing and listening to the beautiful music together to maintain the quality of the ballet that has been preserved all these years,” Camaclang adds.
The pressure is real. Sia, who is drawing from an arsenal of movements from years of dancing Ballet Manila’s signature classical and contemporary pieces, has had to analyze Chopiniana in order to best express the intentions of the choreography.
“There’s one step, and then there’s a hundred ways you can do that step. So you just have to find the one that says sylph. Like running. There are different kinds of running – running like a princess, running bravura, running like Kitri, running like a ghost. But this one is not a ghost. I don’t know how to explain the difference between a ghost and a sylph. This is air!” she explains.
But despite the challenges, there is much excitement in the air. After all, it has been 18 years since the company last performed Chopiniana.
“I was absolutely thrilled when I learned that I was casted as Prelude in Chopiniana!” Harris enthuses. “It has long been my favorite ballet. It’s a special ballet for me because it was the first pas de deux that I ever danced when I was still a student.”
She adds, “This ballet is nothing short of a dream. I think it is very interesting and incredible that this ballet’s choreography really captures the essence of the music of Chopin. The music paired with the choreography is really a match made in heaven. Each step, each pose perfectly captures the mood and tone of the music. This ballet is pure classicism at its finest and really just a spiritual experience for me to dance.”
The prospect of dancing as a fairy-like creature is what appeals to Ishibashi the most. “Every time I hear that music, it makes me very emotional. I watched so many videos on YouTube. How they use the port de bras, it’s like real fairies. So I try to learn how to use my arms so that I would look more like a fairy and not like a human.”
Oliveiro’s take on Chopiniana, however, is particularly interesting because she began rehearsals with much skepticism. Admittedly, she was among the dancers who stared blankly at Barroso for the first couple of rehearsals – unable to wrap her head around the baffling movements being demonstrated. The bodies were tilted at an odd angle, and the movements were excruciatingly slow. She couldn’t get it. And for a moment, she feared that today’s audience may not understand it either.
“I was (skeptical)!” she laughs. “But you know what really changed my mind? It wasn’t even me dancing it, or enjoying it. It was that one day, when the entire cast was rehearsing together and I was just gobsmacked. I’ve seen it aplenty on YouTube, learning and studying, but it didn’t compare to watching it right in front of you. And that was just a rehearsal. It was mesmerizing!”
“The choreography is very lyrical, very beautiful and of a particular style,” explains Oliveiro. “When you watch all these women come together in their long white romantic tutus, dancing to Chopin, it really is so dreamy! For me, the choreography really hones in on the illusion of the female dancers floating and moving like sylphs with the different dynamics of the variations and the corps work; particularly with the art of the upper body. It also is a very musical piece. Watching it is like being able to see the music.”
Clearly, Chopiniana has won her over. But the final verdict will come on opening night and Sia understands what is at stake.
“The challenge is to make it relevant still,” she says. The confidence in her voice rings loud and clear. The sylphs are ready.