We went to the Cedar Lee Theater last night to watch La Sylphide on screen, part of the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series. The original La Sylphide (1832) was the ballet that made Marie Taglioni world famous. As the Sylph, Taglioni performed the first expressive use of pointe work. And La Sylphide marked the beginning of the ballet blanc, a Romantic style that has come to dominate popular conceptions of the very nature of ballet.
To briefly summarize its story, La Sylphide tells of a young Scottish farmer, James, who, on the morning of his wedding, sees the Sylph and pursues her, abandoning his fiancée and the wedding party. No one familiar with Romantic tropes will be surprised to learn that everything ends even worse than might be expected. The Sylph refuses to be touched and when James resorts to magic in order to embrace her, she dies in his arms.
The original choreography for La Sylphide by Taglioni’s father, Filippo, has been completely lost. The version we have today, the oldest surviving classical ballet, was premiered in 1836, choreographed by August Bournonville for the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB). The young Bournonville had studied in Paris and frequently partnered Taglioni at the Paris Opera Ballet. His version of La Sylphide kept the original story and characters but, unable to afford the POB’s high price for the original score, used entirely new music by Herman Severin Løvenskiold. Bournonville’s choreography for La Sylphide has become his most popular ballet and an outstanding example of Bournonville ballet technique.
The Bolshoi has performed other versions of La Sylphide, but the one we saw last night was the Bournonville version set on them in recent years by Johan Kobborg, who has had a long and distinguished career with RDB. At age 18 he was chosen to demonstrate the Bournonville Technique in an instructional video. Long known as an outstanding interpreter of the role of James, he has set his own well-received version of La Sylphide on London’s Royal Ballet.
The cast of La Sylphide draws on the Bolshoi’s seemingly bottomless roster of highly proficient dancers, each one capable of projecting the finest shades of emotion.
As the Sylph, Anastasia Stashkevich playfully flirts with James, careless of consequence. Her pointe work is light years beyond what Taglioni dazzled Parisians with, but it’s all subsumed into the role of the ethereal, airborne sylph. Neither the Bournonville choreography nor her characterization have any room for bravura sequences with 32 fouettes.
As James, Semyon Chudin is alienated from his fiancée and the wedding guests from the moment he first sees the Sylph. Just when he seems about to forget the airy spirit and reengage with his real life, she returns to distract him again. James’ choreography is all typical Bournonville, quick jumps and beats with no room for the bounding leaps and turns we usually expect from the Bolshoi men.
As Effie, James’ fiancée, Xenia Zhiganshina is all sweetness and caring, mediating patiently between the wedding guests and the moody James. Neither her appearance nor her behavior gives James the slightest reason to look elsewhere. Like the rest of the wedding party, she wears heeled character dancing shoes.
The Romantic protagonist who loses everything in pursuit of an unattainable goal is, as we said earlier, a trope we’ve come to take for granted, but a look back at ballets and audiences in the early 19th century provides insight into the forces that produced La Sylphide and the ballet blanc.
In 1831, the year before La Sylphide, Marie and Filippo Taglioni collaborated in another production, the Ballet of the Nuns in the third act of the opera Robert le Diable. In this ballet, the ghosts of nuns who had broken their vows try to seduce a knight, Robert le Diable, and drag him to Hell. The white costumes and other aspects of Ballet of the Nuns have led many dance historians to consider this the true beginning of ballet blanc. Or is it? Whether because of or in spite of the obvious sexploitation, audiences loved the Ballet of the Nuns and Robert le Diable became one of the most frequently performed operas of the 19th century. Marie, however, was less than comfortable with the overtly sexual dancing and left after only 6 performances. We would argue that Ballet of the Nuns was too transgressive, too sexually explicit to qualify as true ballet blanc, but that La Sylphide found the sweet spot.
In La Sylphide, the sexual attraction between the Sylph and James is rendered covert by the Sylph’s behavior and her magical nature. She is provocative but evades touch. No touching means no sexual contact. When James embraces her without her consent, she is not a woman violated but a magical creature in a Romantic fairy tale who immediately dies. Before #MeToo, the moment when the Sylph dies in James’ arms is deeply tragic. 185 years after La Sylphide, #MeToo cuts through coding and euphemism and the Sylph – sometimes — speaks up and says how she feels.
In our experience, the performances presented through the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series are not available elsewhere. However, a quick check of Amazon.com shows several DVDs that should be worthwhile. One presents a recent performance of La Sylphide by RDB. Another presents Pierre Lacotte’s attempt to reconstruct the original 1832 La Sylphide in the style of the period, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet.
We watched La Sylphide at the Cedar Lee Theater on Wednesday, 12/5/2018.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas
The Ballet of the Nuns in Act 3 of Meyerbeer’s opera ‘Robert le diable’, in 1831, was the beginning of Romantic ballet and the first ballet blanc.
Thanks Bruce. Your exact quote, “The Ballet of the Nuns in Act 3 of Meyerbeer’s opera ‘Robert le Diable’, in 1831, was the beginning of Romantic ballet and the first ballet blanc,” appears in the Wikipedia article for “Ballet of the Nuns” and is footnoted there to A Queer History of Ballet by Peter Stoneley. You and Mr Stoneley have a right to your opinion but, as we explain in our article, we would argue otherwise.
Not that Wikipedia is the last word on anything, but the Wikipedia article on “ballet blanc” (Ballet blanc – Wikipedia) calls Ballet of the Nuns “a precursor” of ballet blanc and names La Sylphide as the “first fully-fledged ballet blanc” and the beginning of the Romantic movement in ballet.
Looking at the writings of Lincoln Kirstein, Francis Mason, and Jennifer Homans I find ballet blanc and Romantic ballet to be slippery terms that are difficult to pin down. Repeated viewings of the ballets in question and careful reading might deepen our appreciation of the art form, but might not end our disagreement. Victor Lucas