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#Throwback Thursday: Les Sylphides

Today's #Throwback Thursday is on the often forgotten ballet Les Sylphides. It is often confused with the ballet 'La Sylphide', which tells the tale of a sylph and a young Scotsman. Les Sylphides, in contrast, has no actual plot. Instead, it is a short ballet without a defined storyline, of the type sometimes referred to as a 'ballet blanc', a 'white ballet', because of the long white tutus the dancers wear.

The Dutch National Ballet

The ballet consists simply of sylphs dancing in the moonlight, accompanied by the 'poet' or the 'young man'. It was choreographed by Michael Fokine, at a time when the idea that a ballet could be simply dance without a storyline was revolutionary. Les Sylphides is often cited as the first ballet to be simply about mood and dance.

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, American Ballet Theatre

Fokine chose music by Frederic Chopin for his new ballet; Alexander Glazunov handled the finer details of the music. Glazunov had already set an orchestral suite in 1892 using the same music, entitled Chopiniana, Op. 46. The music's pre-established link to this name poses a problem: when did the ballet premiere?

Natalia Osipova, American Ballet Theatre

A performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1907 entitled Reverie Romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin might claim to be its first performance. However, this performance also laid the foundations for a different ballet, entitled Chopiniana, which took many different forms even under Fokine. The first performance of Les Sylphides as a modern audience would recognise it took place on 2 June 1909, at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. The company was Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and the performance starred Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky (as the 'poet'), Anna Pavlova, and Alexandra Baldina.

Anna Pavlova

Tamara Karsavina

The famous white tutu that Pavlova and her fellow ballerinas wore was designed by Leon Bakst; it was inspired by a lithograph of Marie Taglioni dressed as the sylph from La Sylphide, her most famous role; indeed, it has been theorised that the ballet itself was intended as a tribute to the ballets of the Romantic era.

Hee Sao and Thomas Forster, American Ballet Theatre

The ballet was then premiered in London at the Royal Opera House by the Ballet Russes; the American premiere is rather harder to place. An unofficial version was staged in New York in 1911, featuring Alexandra Baldina. This was soon followed by an authorised premiere, again by the Ballet Russes, at the Century Theatre in New York, on 20 January 1916. The production starred Lydia Lopokova.

Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy

Tatiana Riabouchinska, Tamara Toumanova, and Irina Baronova - the 'Baby Ballerinas'

Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

Nijinsky reprised his role with the company at the Metropolitan Opera on 14 April 1916, where the short ballet was paired with the similar Papillons, a ballet to a suite by Robert Schumann and choreographed by Fokine. Fokine set the ballet for various other companies, sometimes dancing it himself with his wife Vera Fokine. The ballet remained prominent in the Ballet Russes repertoire until the company's collapse. When Blum and de Basil reinvented the company as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Les Sylphides became part of their common repertoire. It was danced frequently by that company until it too collapsed.

Irina Baronova, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

Raven Wilkinson, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

The standard version of the ballet is as follows: a polonaise, followed by 'nocturne', a waltz, two mazurkas, the iconic 'prelude', a second waltz, and concluded with the 'grande valse brilliante.' Some companies omit the polonaise and replace it with 'prelude'. The New York City Ballet version omits the polonaise but leaves 'prelude' in its original position. The NYCB production was staged by Alexandra Danilova and premiered at the Lincoln Center on 20 January 1976, sixty years after the original Ballet Russes production in America.

The Dutch National Ballet

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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