Is this ballet for you?
Go If: You love Romantic ballets like Giselle but wish the male dancer had a bigger role. You’re slightly OCD and sympathise with James’s determination to possess the ethereal Sylph.
Skip If: “What do you mean the leads never really dance together?” You can’t live without a proper Pas de Deux – preferably full of lifts – in classical ballet.
You should also skip if the ballet you’re looking for is actually Les Sylphides, which has nothing to do – and should never be confused – with La Sylphide.
The Sylph: She’s a well-known face in our dream casts already but what can we do? Alina Cojocaru is the quintessential Sylph.
James: We keep crossing our fingers that it won’t be long till we see Steven McRae take this role. With his crisp footwork and dramatic intensity he is ideally suited.
History & Background
La Sylphide was the first major Romantic ballet and it is one of the oldest still regularly performed. Its story derives from the Romantic Period, more exactly from the obsessive stories of French writer Charles Nodier. In Nodier’s universe life would invariably “fluctuate between bliss and despair; the dream cannot be sustained for very long” and sorrow was “the only logical alternative to ecstasy, the only emotion to carry similar intensity”. Thus, the Romantic concept of an unfortunate hero, forever chasing an elusive, supernatural force and ultimately facing a tragic destiny.
The Taglioni Version
Nodier’s Trilby ou Le Lutin d’Argail (The Elf of Argyll) published in 1822 tells of a male elf who lures a Highlands fisherman’s wife away from her husband. Inspired by it and with legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni in mind, Adolphe Nourrit, an operatic tenor and arts sponsor decided to create a ballet reversing the genders in Nodier’s story and casting Taglioni as the seducing spirit.
Nourrit borrowed the concept of the Sylph from previous 18th century ballets, only here he gave the Sylph more personality, making her a leading character. He also looked to Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian for the names Effie and Madge and possibly to Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the witches.
He took this scenario to Paris Opera ballet master Filippo Taglioni, Marie’s father. Instantly recognizing its potential as a vehicle for his virtuoso daughter Taglioni commissioned music from Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhöffer and the ballet premiered on 12 March 1832. La Sylphide became an instant classic and cemented Marie Taglioni’s reputation as the most ethereal of ballerinas.
The Bournonville version
Bournonville’s La Sylphide is a rare case of a remake that’s better than the original. The Danish ballet master was Taglioni’s contemporary and great admirer of the ballerina. He had seen her dance La Sylphide in Paris in 1834 and for him “She lifted one up from this earth, and her dancing could make one weep”. Bournonville acquired Nourrit’s scenario and commissioned a new score from Norwegian composer Herman Løvenskiold (as Schneitzhoeffer’s score was too expensive). His new and improved La Sylphide premiered in Copenhagen in 1836.
The Danish ballet master saw in La Sylphide an opportunity to promote his own pupil Lucile Grahn but at the same time he wanted to take some emphasis out of the ballerina and put her on equal footing with the male dancer. He re-choreographed the ballet to suit his own abilities as a virtuoso dancer, thus giving a bigger role to the character of James, full of mighty leaps, turns and challenging beaten steps.
Bournonville filled his ballet with deeper meaning and intention. Cutting the “fat” in Taglioni’s choreography, he condensed it and fleshed out the poetic imagery and symbolism of the story. Thus, the witch Madge is a more important figure who sustains the drama. He also decided that James should not be able to touch the Sylph, so their pas de deux in Act 2 became a dance where James tries to emulate the ethereal moves he sees in the Sylphs. James tries to become like the creature he’s obsessed with. He aspires to belong in her world and to possess her and this ultimately leads to tragedy.
He also placed enormous importance in the contrast between James’s family life and the forest world of the Sylphs. In Act 1 all group dances are in character shoes and “to the ground” whereas in the forest in Act 2 the Sylphs dance en pointe and “off the ground’. Such carefully planned additions are evident when one compares his ballet to Pierre Lacotte‘s 1973 restoration based on Taglioni’s library notes which forms part of POB’s repertoire. With the intention of staying true to Taglioni’s text Lacotte kept Effie and her friends en pointe and glossed over the problem of James’s more conventional pas de deux with the Sylph, which seems to contradict the narrative.
At the time the ballet premiered some accused Bournonville of plagiarism, but for others it was clear that his version was overall superior. And while Taglioni’s version did not survive unscathed throughout the years, the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB) tradition ensured that Bournonville’s La Sylphide remained intact. It has been passed on from one generation to the next with very few modifications and is regularly performed by some of the world’s biggest ballet companies.
Act 1 –A Scottish Farmhouse
It is James’s wedding/betrothal day. As he lies asleep in an armchair by the fireplace waiting for his fiancée Effie and guests he is watched by the Sylphide. She hovers over his chair as he dreams (perhaps of her?), she dances out her love for him and impulsively kisses him. James wakes up perplexed. Seeing the Sylph he asks her why she is there but she avoids him and flies away up the chimney. James’s friend Gurn arrives and then Effie and her friends, but James is still slightly bewildered. Soon he notices a haggard old woman – Madge – warming herself at the fireplace, the same spot where he had last seen the Sylph before she flew off. Angrily he attacks Madge and wants to expel her from his property but his friends convince him to calm down and be more hospitable. She settles into a chair and offers to read the fortunes of Effie and her friends. She predicts that some will bear healthy children while others will bear children who will die. Madge tells Effie she will have many children and will be very happy and as Effie approaches James to share these news Madge tells her that her future lies instead with Gurn, sparking James’s fury again.
As Effie goes upstairs to prepare for the ceremony and guests leave, James is visited once again by the Sylph. She appears at the window and he rushes to welcome her, kneeling at her feet as if she were a deity. She approaches him and tells her she is sad: she loves him but she knows he loves someone else. He tries to cheer her up and soon she becomes flirtatious again wrapping his tartan scarf around herself. As guests begin to return James makes the Sylph hide in his armchair underneath a plaid blanket. Gurn, suspicious of James’s odd behaviour, uncovers the blanket but finds nothing there. All guests have now arrived and they dance together but the Sylph reappears teasing James. He is unable to concentrate on partnering his fiancée and his head turns increasingly towards the Sylph. As the young couple are about to exchange rings the Sylph snatches Effie’s ring and flees. James runs after her while the desolate Effie is consoled by James’s mother and her friends.
Act 2 – A Misty Forest & Glade
The second act opens with Madge and her coven dancing around a boiling cauldron, out of which Madge pulls a scarf. The Sylph and James appear. She shows him her world, summoning other Sylphs to entertain him. He declares his love for her. They all dance together but she always evades his grasp. Frustrated he encounters Madge who – feigning good intentions – gives him the scarf and tells him to use it as a means to capture the Sylph.
Effie, Gurn and friends look for James. Gurn encounters James’s hat in the woods but Madge convinces him to say nothing of it. She advises Effie to forget about James and settle for Gurn. He is delighted and immediately proposes to Effie who accepts him somewhat reluctantly. Meanwhile, James shows the scarf to the Sylph. She is mesmerized and pleads him to give it to her but as he wraps the scarf around her, her wings fall off and she dies. The Sylphs carry her away while James grieves. Madge comes back and forces James to see all he has lost. In the background he sees the festivities celebrating Effie and Gurn’s union. He falls to the ground in a swoon as Madge rises over him triumphantly. In Johan Kobborg‘s version for The Royal Ballet Madge slightly lifts off her skirt revealing a bit of tutu, which suggests that Madge could have been a fallen Sylph herself.
It had been Bournonville’s intention to use Schneitzhöffer’s original score for his Sylphide but when it proved too expensive to acquire he turned to 19-year old Herman Severin Løvenskiold, a talented pianist and fledgling composer. The score became one of Løvenskiold’s greatest successes combining a sense of narrative and character leitmotifs with lively dance sequences.
It is said that Bournonville’s decision to use Løvenskiold’s music had met with some opposition; some detractors had planned to boo it at the premiere, but ultimately the music was so lovely that the protest never materialised. His is now the oldest Romantic ballet score still being performed.
Løvenskiold and Bournonville collaborated again in 1847 on the ballet The New Penelope or The Spring Festival in Athens. Although his music was well received the ballet did not remain on RDB’s long term repertory.
Your La Sylphide Spotify/Ipod playlist should include the below tracks:
1. Act I: Overture
2. Act I: Introduction
3. Act I: Effie’s entrance
4. Act I: Fortune-teller Scene: James – Effie – the Witch
5. Act I: Window Scene: James and the Sylphide
6. Act I: Arrival of the Guests – Pas d’Ecossaise
7. Act I: Pas de deux – Reel
8. Act I: Finale
9. Act II: The Witch Scene
10.Act II: Forest Scene: James and the Sylphide
11. Act II: The Sylphide calls the Sylphs
12. Act II: Sylph Scene: Divertissement
13. Act II: James chasing the Sylphide
14. Act II: Gurn – The Witch – Effie
15. Act II: James and the Witch – The Scarf
16. Act II: Finale
17. Act II: Finale: Pas de deux
- Johan Kobborg (guesting with the Bolshoi) as Madge tells Effie and her friends their fortunes [link]
- Johan Kobborg (again guesting with the Bolshoi) as James [link]
- Stuttgart Ballet’s Marijn Rademaker as James [link]
- A short feature on Johan Kobborg’s production for the Bolshoi with Natalia Osipova as The Sylph [link]
- Natalia Osipova as the Sylph in Act 1 of Johan Kobborg’s production [link]
- Royal Danish Ballet promo video for La Sylphide featuring Thomas Lund & Gudrun Bojesen [link]
- Historical footage from 1906 of Royal Danish Ballet prima ballerina Ellen Price as the Sylph [link]
Original Choreography: Filippo Taglioni
Original Music: Jean Schneitzhöffer;
Libretto: Adolphe Nourrit after Charles Nodier
Original Designs: Pierre Cicéri & Eugene Lami.
Original Cast: Marie Taglioni
Premiere: Paris Opera Ballet, Paris, 12 March 1832.
Original Choreography: August Bournonville
Original Music: Herman Severin Løvenskiold
Original Designs: Christian Ferdinand Christensen
Original Cast: Lucile Grahn & August Bournonville
Premiere: Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, 28 November 1836.
Sources and Further Information
- La Sylphide (Lacotte/Taglioni). Comparative study from website In The Name of Auguste Vestris [link]
- The Royal Ballet’s La Sylphide Programme Notes
- Marriage and The Inhuman, by Sally Banes and Noel Carroll. Essay published in Rethinking the Sylph, by Lynn Garafola [link]
- The Cult of the Unreal: Nodier and Romantic Monomania, by Marina van Zuylen. Essay published in Monomania, the Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art [link]
- The Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide on DVD [link]
- La Sylphide on Bournonville.com website [link]