The premiere of La Sylphide at the Paris Opera in 1832 was the breakthrough for Romantic ballet. La Sylphide is a story about being seduced, a story about a young man who can't catch his dream. And in a symbolic way the ballet becomes a portrait of the Romantic period, where passions were strong and with them, a feeling of unrest.
At the heart of La Sylphide is the young Scotsman James, whose mind is divided. He does not feel truly at home in the smug, bourgeois world to which he is about to bind himself by marrying the sweet Effy. He loves his fianc_e, but also has dreams and longings that reach far beyond this mundane exis- tence. He dreams of another world: the Sylph is a symbol of that world. Creatures living in the trees, the sylphs can be 300 years old and still look young and beautiful. That is the danger- ous thing about them.
It is a delicate situation, if a young man starts dreaming about sylphs the day he is going to marry. James is dozing in his chair; the Sylph enters the room through the window and lures James away from his wedding, out into the woods. Eroticism is dangerous ground; the Romantics knew it and still they were deeply fascinated.
The Sylph is not the only character dangerous to James. The witch Madge represents the grotesque and the demonic forces, introduced in Romantic ballet as an inspiration from Shakespeare. Madge gives James a scarf which he believes will help him to catch the Sylph. Instead, it kills her.
Characteristic of Romantic ballet is its love for far away coun- tries, for scenes of night and moonlight, and for the ballerina taking center stage. La Sylphide was made for the great bal- lerina Marie Taglioni, who created a world of poetry when she rose on pointe. Taglioni became the personification of the dual- ity, the fight between body and soul, in the Romantic period. When the sylphs soar over the stage in the second act of La Sylphide, they have no bodies. It is all a spiritual vision.
On a May evening in 1834, the Danish dancer and choreogra- pher August Bournonville saw La Sylphide at the Paris Opera, with Marie Taglioni dancing the choreography of her father
Filippo Taglioni. As a young dancer Bournonville had studied in Paris in the 1820s and danced at the Paris Opera. In 1834, he had spent four years as artistic director at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, where over the next 40 years, he would raise the Royal Danish Ballet to an international level and give them a repertory which still is their trump card.
Bournonville had been in Paris to become inspired and to be acquainted with the new trends in the ballet world. He was deeply moved by seeing La Sylphide. The Romantic vision overwhelmed him as an artist, but also, on a personal level, he was hit. (From his own life he knew the temptations of the senses that a young man could encounter. When he studied at the Paris Opera, he had an affair with the sister of one of his comrades and fathered a child with the young lady: but he did not tell anyone in Denmark about it.)
The day after Bournonville saw La Sylphide at the Paris Opera, he bought the libretto, written by the singer Adolphe Nourrit. Two years later, in 1836, he staged La Sylphide in Copenhagen, where it has been danced ever since. (The French version disappeared until it was recon- structed in 1971 by Pierre Lacotte.)
In 1836 Bournonville himself danced the hero James, and his pupil Lucile Grahn was the first Danish Sylph. Bournonville had new music composed by Herman S. Lêªvenskiold, but followed the French libretto closely, with a few changes to make Madge a more important figure. The story never disappears to let the dance shine on its own. The drama is omnipresent.
For more than a hundred years Bournonville's La Sylphide was only danced in Copenhagen. But around 1950, it started to conquer the world. In 1985 Peter Martins staged La Sylphide for the Pennsylvania Ballet, and in this new version for New York City Ballet, uses the same set and costume design, by Susan Tammany. In staging La Sylphide for New York City Ballet, Martins has been assisted by Petrusjka Broholm, a former soloist of the Royal Danish Ballet, and the premiere of the bal- let at NYCB's Spring Gala Performance will be conducted by another Dane, Henrik Vagn Christensen.
To dance James in La Sylphide is for a Danish dancer equivalent to playing Hamlet for an English actor. Brought up with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Martins is well-versed in Bournonville. He danced James for the first time in 1971, and when Stanley Williams staged Bournonville Divertissements for NYCB in 1977, Peter Martins was in the original cast.
Williams, a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, accepted an invitation from Balanchine in 1960 to teach at the School of American Ballet, where he became one of the school's most influential and charismatic teachers. Balanchine asked Williams to stage this divertissement with excerpts from Bournonville ballets like Napoli (1842), The Kermesse in Bruges (1851), A Folk Tale (1854), La Ventana (1856), and The Flower Festival in Genzano (1858). This was the first meeting between Bournonville and NYCB, and the diver- tissement is now restaged in the same performance where La Sylphide enters the repertory.
Dr. Erik Ashengreen is a Danish dance journalist and preeminent scholar of Danish ballet history who has followed the Royal Danish Ballet for over 60 years. His latest book, Dancing Across the Atlantic, USA _ Demark 1900-2014, is an illustrated, comprehensive history of the Royal Danish Ballet and its longstanding relationship with the United States. It is currently available online at select booksellers including Amazon.com.