With mythological spirits, a forlorn hero chasing the unknown, and supernatural forces, here is everything you need to know about the first major Romantic ballet, La Sylphide.
Drawing of Marie Taglioni as “The Sylph” in “La Sylphide”.
First, for some history, there are technically two versions of the ballet! The original La Sylphide was created by Italian dancer and choreographer Filippo Taglioni. The ballet premiered on March 12, 1832, at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra with music by Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer. Taglioni created the work to showcase his daughter, Marie Taglioni, who remains one of the most celebrated ballerinas of the Romantic era. What made this ballet so notable was that it was the first time where dancing en pointe had an aesthetic rationale and was not merely an acrobatic stunt, which typically had ungraceful arm and leg movements. Another fun note is that Marie was known for shortening her skirts to reveal more leg and show off her impressive pointe work which was considered highly scandalous at the time!
The second version of La Sylphide was created by Danish ballet master August Bournonville of the Royal Danish Ballet. He had originally intended to present a revival of Filippo Taglioni’s ballet but things didn’t go to plan after the Paris Opéra demanded too high a price for Schneitzhoeffer’s score. So instead, Bournonville mounted his own production, using the original libretto (story) and chose new music composed by Herman Severin Løvenskjold. His version premiered on November 18, 1836, at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen.
Bournonville’s version is the only one that has survived and continues to be danced in its original form by the Royal Danish Ballet and ballet companies all across the world. On top of that, it is one of Bournonville’s most celebrated works!
The scenario (libretto/story) of the ballet was written by Adolphe Nourrit, a French opera singer and composer. He based it on author Charles Nodier’s novella Trilby, ou Le lutin d’Argail (Trilby, or The Leprechaun of Argail). Nourrit made a key modification for the ballet’s story by swapping the genders of the protagonists! The original story of a Goblin and Fisherman’s wife became the Sylph and the Farmer. However, Nourrit kept the story’s original setting in Scotland since at the time the ballet was created, Scotland was considered an exotic land, and the ethereal mists of the Highlands made the perfect backdrop for the mythical characters!
La Sylphide was the first major Romantic ballet and is to this day, one of the world’s oldest surviving ballets. It is often confused with Les Sylphides which is a separate and unrelated ballet that just so happens to center around the same mythical creature!
Nayon Iovino as “James”and Jillian Barrell as “The Sylph” in “La Sylphide.” Photo by Tim Fuller.
A young Scottish farmer, James, naps in an armchair on the dawn of his wedding day. A winged creature, a sylph, appears by his side. She arouses him with a kiss. James awakens in a state of confusion. He is to marry Effy but is mysteriously drawn to the sylph. She tempts him and he runs after her, but she disappears. The preparations for the wedding are in full swing. An old fortune-teller, Madge, slips in and sits by the fire. She predicts that Gurn, James’ friend who secretly longs for Effy, will marry Effy. James becomes furious at Madge’s vision and chases her out of the home; upon her departure, she places a curse on him. The sylph shows herself to James again and proclaims her love for him and tells him that she has watched over and protected him for years. Before the wedding ceremony, the sylph takes the ring intended for Effy and rushes into the forest. James willingly follows the sylph, leaving Effy in tears.
In the forest, Madge is conjuring an evil spell to place on a scarf. James appears in a wooden glade with the sylph. She offers him berries and water. James is mesmerized by the sylph and longs to touch her but she shies away. To cheer him up, she summons her sisters, and they dance for him. Meanwhile, the farmers set out into the forest to look for James. Gurn finds James’ hat and Madge convinces him to say nothing. The search proves fruitless and Gurn proposes to the heart-broken Effy, and she accepts. James emerges and Madge presents him with the cursed scarf. She explains it will bind the sylph to him so she cannot fly away. The Sylph returns and is captivated by the scarf. James places it around her shoulders and disaster occurs immediately; her wings fall off and she dies. Effy and Gurn’s wedding procession takes place while James collapses lifeless and Madge exults.