Sorella Englund: Defining Character


Patrick Yocum (James) and Anaïs Chalendard (Sylph)

Photo credit: Liza Voll

The former soloist with the Royal Danish Ballet and expert on Bournonville ballets now teaches others how to bring characters to life in La Sylphide

Paulo Arrais and Sorella Englund in rehearsal for La Sylphide

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Elizabeth Olds and Sorella Englund in rehearsal for La Sylphide

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

During her illustrious career with the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB), Sorella Englund was known as both an extraordinary dramatic ballerina and an exceptional interpreter of the works of August Bournonville. Intelligent, poetic, and expressive, she approached each role much in the way that many actors do: by creating a back story for her character. “I think it makes a big difference, because you learn something you didn’t know before,” she said. “You’re on a journey with this person; you’re creating her, but she’s not you. So this person is taking you to new places.”

Englund has staged Bournonville ballets with several major companies and wherever she goes, she encourages dancers to explore their characters to the fullest. Mikko Nissinen calls her “the finest expert on Bournonville today.”  Englund shares her philosophy that “No matter what part you’re creating in any ballet, it must be truthful. There must be a past and a present.” Now she brings her knowledge and experience to Boston Ballet as the stager for Bournonville’s La Sylphide. 

La Sylphide, the first great Romantic ballet, was originally choreographed by Filippo Taglioni in 1832. Bournonville saw the production in Paris and in 1836 choreographed his own version for the RDB, basing it on the same story, but commissioning a new score by Herman Løvenskiold. La Sylphide takes place on the wedding day of a young man named James who becomes enraptured by the vision of a bewitching sylph. He abandons his fiancée Effie at the altar to pursue the beckoning creature.

“James is a difficult part because it has so many aspects,” said Englund. “He’s a very sweet man who’s lovely to his fiancée, but he’s also passionate and a dreamer. There’s a huge split in his mind, and he doesn’t know where to go or what to do. No matter what he does, things are not going to end happily. I think this is a ballet about a man’s very existence. It’s not only a love story; it’s a search for spirituality. James is looking for something bigger, for some kind of freedom. For him to stay in this small society, where he knows exactly what his life is going to look like, is impossible for him.”

The ballerina who plays the sylph faces a dichotomy of a different kind. “She’s so strong and powerful in her mind, but physically, she’s like the wind,” said Englund. “So her strength should never come through in a physical way. She must look incredibly fragile; the power and passion are in her eyes and mind. In this ballet you have to learn to be more and do less. That’s the hard thing, because as a dancer you always think it’s very boring if you’re not doing a lot. But you have to have the guts to do less and be incredibly present.”

Elizabeth Olds (Madge) and Melissa Hough (Effie) in La Sylphide

Photo credit: Sabi Varga ©vargaimages

Perhaps the most intriguing character in the ballet is Madge. In most productions, it’s evident that Madge is a witch and up to no good from the moment the audience lays eyes on her. For Englund, who has won accolades for the role, it was important to create a full-blooded person. “When I started to work with the part, I couldn’t be evil until I understood why,” she said. “That’s why I created a complete past for her. I know her very well, although my ideas change all the time. I think she was unwanted, and she’s also crippled. And we all know how people who are different are treated. She has always been made fun of. And the harder thing for a human being is to be rejected, not wanted.”

“At some point, she moved to the forest,” Englund continued. “Maybe she’s living in someone’s empty cottage. Maybe she’s like a bag lady today. She doesn’t want any mercy from any social system. She wants to be on her own. And she’s good at telling people’s fortune; I think that a person who is very lonely sees other people quite clearly.”

When the audience first sees Madge in this production, she is not dressed in a costume that signals “witch,” but is made to look like a member of the community. “Her clothes are just a little bit more worn down and not so elegant,” said Englund. “She’s an outsider, but she’s not evil by definition. She becomes evil because she is thrown out by James. She’s badly treated, and it’s one time too many. That’s when she makes her plan to have her revenge, and it’s very sweet and incredibly short. In the end she’s more lonely than before. She has nothing.”