The company stages one of the standards of the repertoire, along with a world premiere exploring male emotions.

The Milwaukee Ballet fired up the Wayback Machine Thursday night, staging a superb production of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, a ballet that dates from the very origins of the modern art form.

Of course, dance has been around since we first rose up on our hindquarters, but so much of what we now know as ballet began with Bournonville—the ballerina as ethereal (and often otherworldly) object of desire, and the use of pointe work to create that feeling. The story of a doomed romance between a mortal and a spirit (here, a Scottish farmer named James and a woodland sprite called a sylph, respectively) has become a template for story ballets through dance’s Golden Age. On the other hand, the Bournonville style also predates many of the dramatic flourishes we’ve come to expect in classical ballet (courtesy of the Russians). There is no entangled partnering or spectacular pas de deux lifts. The mood is serene and elegant, without crashing Romantic climaxes. Think Mozart serenades rather than booming Tchaikovsky symphonies and you’re on the right track.

To master that style, the Milwaukee Ballet brought the Danish choreographer Dinna Bjørn to town to act as répétiteur, a resident expert in Bournonville’s style and choreography. It’s no easy task. When Mikhail Baryshnikov took up the lead role in La Sylphide shortly after moving to America, he found his “classical habits” interfered and asked for extra rehearsals to refine the part. Modern ballet is steeped in the more emotive Russian style—it’s a shared vocabulary. Dancing the Bournonville way means stripping away some of that passionate plenty and moving toward a more refined simplicity. As Bournonville himself put it, “The beautiful always retains the freshness of novelty; the amazing bores in the long run.”

To master that transformation in a short time is no easy task, but the dancers of the Milwaukee Ballet succeed magnificently. You can see it most clearly in the large ensembles. During the wedding party of James and Effie, the corps is tight and precise—Bournonville’s emphasis on stillness in the torsos makes him quite appropriate to Celtic dancing. But the company truly shows its stuff in the first part of Act Two, in which the sylphs gather in the woods. The corps shines with an appropriate reserve and elegance. The ensemble is tight but breathes beautifully. And there are exquisite solo turns by Luz San Miguel and Marize Fumero.

Luz San Miquel and Davit Hovhannisyan. Photo by Mark Frohna

Davit Hovhannisynan isn’t ideally built to play the Bournonville hero. But that’s a good thing. The lithe Danes dance James with icy, cyborg-like detachment (watch the Royal Danish Ballet’s “authoritative” production). Hovhannisyan isn’t a giant, but he reads large on the stage, and he radiates power and robust emotions. When he performs the role’s spectacular entrechats (vertical leaps in which the legs flutter in midair), you can see his arms and torso tense with efforted stillness. That upper-body emptiness (minus the tension) is a major tenet of the Bournonville style. But in Hovhannisyan, the tension brings a welcome humanity to the often cool formalism of that world.

There’s seldom any tension in San Miquel’s lovely performance as the Sylph. She brings a healthy dollop of coquetry and playfulness to her acting, but the essence of the role lies in her effortless command of the movement. Her pointe work is elegant and precise. And her light-as-air bearing embodies the character with an effortless grace.

You can’t miss Madge, the witch, amid all this reserve. Rachel Malehorn is delightfully sinister, mastering the mime “conversations” that are also a key to Bournonville’s style. Andrews Sill and the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra turn the unremarkable score (by Herman Severin Løvenskjold into graceful and appropriately dramatic music.

Timothy O’Donnell’s “Sans Pleurer.
Photo by Mark Frohna.

Timothy O’Donnell’s Sans Pleurer (“Without Crying”) is a fitting companion to the cool gentility of La Sylphide. In his program notes, O’Donnell explains he wanted to explore men’s tendencies to suppress their emotions. The dance’s mise-en-scène fits the theme. Dark, abstract forms—lit spectacularly by David Grill—are manipulated to create cool arrangements that mimic the affectless reactions of observers. At the center, a tortured figure struggles with inner torment, metaphorically wanting to reveal himself by removing his dark jacket.

The images are theatrically striking, at times resembling Robert Wilson’s precise stage geometries, and the individual movement is emotionally charged and physical. At times, it can seem a bit over-emotive. But O’Donnell achieves a brilliant cacophony in the large ensembles, a 3×3 matrix of dancers that shifts and morphs with complex arrangements of different motifs performed by duos or trios within the grid.

This wholly satisfying program will be repeated Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Marcus Center.

Go See It

La Sylphide & Sans Pleurer (April 6-9), Milwaukee Ballet, 504 W. National Avenue