Hans Christian Andersen and August Bournonville were life-long friends. Born just months apart in Denmark in 1805, the writer and the choreographer shared a fascination with fantasy, with the mysteries and shadowy magic of the supernatural.
Like Andersen's best-loved stories, many of Bournonville's ballets inhabit this extraordinary otherworldly realm. None of them does so with more haunting power than La Sylphide. Though not often staged in America, it is one of the early milestones in the history of ballet. Stanton Welch's decision to bring this 1836 masterpiece to Houston provides local audiences with the chance to get to know one of ballet's landmarks.
Both Andersen and Bournonville loved to people their plots with elves, trolls, mermaids, sylphs, sprites, and witches. Hoping to reach beyond the everyday, they wanted to wrap us in the thrill of the unknown. In this ballet, Bournonville entrances us with visions that captivate with the luscious pleasures of unattainable dreams while, at the same time, warning us to beware.
Bournonville sets La Sylphide in the northern Highlands of Scotland where forests and glens are inhabited by magical beings. Even today these rugged, densely wooded mountainous regions remain remote and isolated. In the 1830s they were as far away and fabled as Xanadu or Shangri-La.
So, from the moment the curtain goes up on a Highland farmhouse‹when we discover the winged otherworldly Sylph hovering beside the sleeping James‹we find ourselves plunged into an exotic world where all kinds of magical happenings seem possible.
This is meant to be his wedding day. His fianc_e, Effie, and her friends are all preparing for the celebrations. But from the instant James first sees the Sylph his world flips upside down. From now on mere reality will never be enough to satisfy him.
Is James delusionary or even deranged? Is the Sylph just a heavenly hallucination? A beautiful but elusive spirit who stays just out of his reach, the Sylph is tempting him to abandon his bride and run away with her to her enchanted forest home.
James is immediately smitten. By the end of the first act he can no longer resist the Sylph's tantalizing temptations and follows this visionary creature into the woods. But in true fairy-tale fashion the Sylph is contrasted with James's nemesis, the decrepit fortune-telling hag Madge. If the Sylph is ethereal then Madge is a diabolical emissary unleashed from hell.
Madge employs black magic when she and her drunken coven poison the scarf that will lead to the death of the Sylph. Gathering up snakes, toads and other despicable things to plunge into their bubbling cauldron at the beginning of the second act, they break all the rules of civilized behaviour. And it is all for spite.
Madge's triumph over James is nothing but a vicious rebuttal for his gruff treatment towards her near the beginning of the story when he evicts her from his home. This is caustic revenge, the sort of thing that witches have pronounced in fairy tales since the beginning of time: "You, stupid mortal, are going to pay the ultimate price for treating me like this."
And, of course, he does. James is gullible enough to try and entrap the Sylph with the pretty scarf that Madge has given to him. But Madge has made certain that this trap is a deadly one. As he wraps the scarf around the Sylph's arms she is subjected to pain for the very first time. Her wings fall from her back and she descends into blindness and, although seemingly impossible for such a spirit of the air, she dies.
One of the most touching moments in all of ballet is the sweetly mournful aerial tableau of the now supine Sylph rising into the skies cradled by her sisters. It is a stunning theatrical vision that helped to ensure the ballet's initial popularity.
The pain remains earthbound. Having killed the thing he loves most, James dies of a broken heart while a triumphant Madge gloats over his dead body.
Hans Christen Andersen approved. In today's world we sometimes forget how dark the endings of his stories such as "The Little Mermaid" or "The Red Shoes" actually are. There is always a price to pay in wishing for what cannot be had.
This harsh moral does not eclipse the gorgeously lovely dancing throughout La Sylphide. Bournonville's choreography has a pure radiance that highlights the contradictions that give myths and fairy tales their potent impact.
Since 1913 a sculpture of Andersen's Little Mermaid has sat on a rock in Copenhagen's harbor. Bournonville's Sylphide has continued to be the single most important heroine in the Royal Danish Ballet's repertory ever since her first appearance. The two of them touch our hearts. They are visions of the eternal unobtainable, of dreams unfulfilled.