#Throwback Thursday: La Sylphide

This week's #ThrowbackThursday focuses on the Romantic-era two-act ballet La Sylphide.

Act I begins in a farmhouse, where a young Scotsman, James, is sleeping in front of the fire. A Sylph enters, dancing around his chair. She kisses him and vanishes when he suddenly wakes. James wakes his friend Gurn, who denies seeing the Sylph and reminds James that he is about to be married. James promises to forget the incident.

The Royal Ballet

James' betrothed, Effie, arrive with her mother and bridesmaids. James spots a shadow in the corner, and thinking it is the Sylph, rushes over, only to find the witch, Old Madge. Effie and her friends beg Old Madge to tell their fortunes, and she complies; gleefully she tells Effie that James loves another. Furious, James throws Old Madge out of the house. Effie and her bridesmaids go upstairs to prepare for the wedding.

The Sylph materialises, confessing her love for James. James resists at first, then gives in and kisses her. Gurn, who is hiding in the shadows, sees and runs upstairs to tell Effie. But when the party comes downstairs, James is alone, and they tease Gurn for being jealous. Everyone starts to dance, and the Sylph reappears, trying to distract James. She snatches the wedding ring from James' grasp and puts it on her own finger, before disappearing into the forest. James runs after her, leaving everyone bewildered; Effie, heartbroken, sobs in her mother's arms.

Pierre Lacotte's version, Paris Opera Ballet

Act II starts in the forest, where Old Madge and her companions are brewing a potion. Madge pulls a scarf from the cauldron's depths, and the witches disappear, revealing a forest glade. James enters with the Sylph, who shows him her forest home. She brings him berries and water but avoids his embrace. She and her sisters dance for him before they all flee to another part of the forest.

The Royal Ballet

Meanwhile, the wedding party has been searching for James. Gurn finds his hat, but is convinced by Madge to stay silent. At her urging, he proposes to Effie, who accepts. The party leaves, and James re-enters the glade. Madge comes to meet him, giving him the magic scarf. She promises that if he winds it around the Sylph, she will not be able to fly away. James is ecstatic, and when the Sylph returns he wraps the scarf around her shoulders.

As he embraces the Sylph, her wings fall off and she dies. Her sisters take her body away. Suddenly, the wedding procession of Effie and Gurn enters. Stunned, James watches the sylphs take their dead sister into the sky, before he too collapses. Madge returns to exalt over his lifeless body.

The Royal Ballet

La Sylphide was originally choreographed by Philippe Taglioni in 1832, to music by Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer. The ballet was created for Taglioni's daughter, Marie, and premiered on 12 March 1832 at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opera. La Sylphide was the first ballet in which the ballerina actually danced en pointe, rather than using it as a (rather ungainly) technical stunt. Marie also shortened her skirt to show off her pointework, which caused a scandal.

Marie Taglioni, lithograph

The ballet's libretto was written by Adolphe Nourrit, a tenor who first performed the role of 'Robert' in Meyerbeer's Robert Le Diable - an opera in which Marie Taglioni also took part, in the 'Ballet of the Nuns'. Nourrit loosely based his story on Charles Nodier's Trilby, ou Le lutin d'Argail, but swapped the genders of the protagonists (originally a goblin and a fisherman's wife in Nodier). The scene of Madge's witchcraft in Act II was inspired by Niccolo Paganini's Le Streghe, which in turn was inspired by the witch scene in Il Noce di Benevento ('The Walnut Tree of Benevento'), an 1812 ballet by choreographer Salvatore Vigano and composer Franz Xaver Sussmayr.

Marie Taglioni, lithograph

Emma Livry, one of the last Romantic ballerinas, made her debut as the Sylph in the Paris Opera Ballet's 1858 production of the ballet. Taglioni, who had retired in 1847, stayed on in Paris to train Livry. Unfortunately, Livry later died while rehearsing Taglioni's ballet Le Papillon, when her skirt caught fire. In 1892, the prolific Marius Petipa staged a revival of Taglioni's version for the Imperial Ballet, with additional music by Riccardo Drigo. A variation which was added to this production for the ballerina Varvara Nikitina is now the traditional variation for the ballerina in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique (it was interpolated by Anna Pavlova in 1904).

Emma Livry, 1858

Louis Merante and Emma Livry, 1858

In 1972, Pierre Lacotte staged a revival for the Paris Opera Ballet. Since Taglioni's original choreography has been completely lost, he based his work off notes and other materials from the time of the ballet's premiere. This means that his choreography, though correct in style, is completely new, a feature that some have criticised. Ghislaine Thesmar and Aurelie Dupont have both danced the lead role in this production.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn

Ballet master August Bournonville intended to stage a revival of Taglioni's ballet for the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, but the Paris Opera demanded too high a price for the original score. Instead, Bournonville staged his own version to music by Herman Severin Lovenskiold, utilising the original libretto. The ballet premiered on 28 November, 1836, with Lucile Grahn and Bournonville himself in the lead roles. The ballet has been danced in its original form by the Royal Danish Ballet ever since its creation, and is thus the oldest ballet to have survived. It is from this version that all modern productions take their cue.

The Australian Ballet

Others have used a similar storyline, for example John Barnett's 1834 opera The Mountain Sylph, which was later satirised by W. S. Gilbert in the 1882 Savoy opera Iolanthe. La Sylphide is not to be confused with Mikhail Fokine's 1909 ballet Les Sylphides, which, though it has similar inspiration, is entirely plotless.

New York City Ballet

Here's the London Festival Ballet with Eva Evdokimova and Peter Schaufuss (definitely worth the bad quality):

And here's Tamara Rojo and Steven McRae of the Royal Ballet, in the Act II pas de deux:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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