La Sylphide (not to be confused with Les Sylphides) is a famous ballet from the Romantic era. Although it was first choreographed by Filippo Taglioni in 1832, August Bournonville’s version from 1836 has been better preserved by the Royal Danish Ballet. However, many other ballet companies from around the world also perform the work. For instance, Eva Kloborg, Frank Andersen and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter helped to stage the piece on the English National Ballet. The La Sylphide ballet story follows a betrothed couple, a jealous best friend, an enticing mythical creature and a witch’s murderous plot. Read our La Sylphide review for more details.
English National Ballet shared their 2017 performance of La Sylphide at Palace Theatre in Manchester on their Facebook and YouTube channels from July 1 – 3, 2020, as part of their #ENBAtHome series. They previously showed Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and will next broadcast Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round.
English National Ballet: La Sylphide Review
Soft morning light announces dawn just outside the window, and the cosy fireplace casts a warm glow, thanks to designer Mikael Melbye and lighting designer Jørn Melin. James (Isaac Hernández) snoozes in an armchair, observed by the curious, wisp-like Sylph (Jurgita Dronina). She enchants James when he wakes, but quickly flies away.
The day’s wedding festivities begin when a group of ladies gallops into the home, each with one hand on her hip, and the other flourishing a tartan skirt. James affectionately wraps his bride-to-be, Effy (Anjuli Hudson), in his family tartan; but the celebrations are halted when he unceremoniously tries to shoo out the sorceress, Madge (Jane Haworth). The wily woman takes center stage, her eyes glinting as she tells fortunes that cause an uproar. Madge gleefully predicts Effy will end up with Gurn (Giorgio Garrett) and claims that her fiancé, James, loves another.
While Effy changes into her bridal attire, the Sylph slips back in through the window. She declares her love for James, expressing sadness at his relationship with Effy. Gurn glimpses the Sylph, but she disappears before anyone can get a closer look. The wedding attendees return, this time with children; and they skip merrily in formations inspired by Scottish dance ceilidhs. (This cultural dance-inspired section reminds me of other European folk dances performed by the Lindjo Folklore Ensemble in Dubrovnik and the Greek traditional dances that feature in Russell Maliphant’s The Thread.)
If you are interested in traditional Scottish dance – and the Highland Fling, in particular – check out our Dance Passport challenge.
When the Sylph interrupts again, she steals the wedding ring from James, which forces him to chase her outside. Though, he does look more cheerful than angry as he bounces out the door. And strangely, the Sylph dances so prettily, the audience can almost forgive her – until the distraught Effie yanks off her wedding veil and collapses to the ground in despair.
The audience is treated to more magic in the second act. Madge enthusiastically gestures over a cauldron, illuminated by a ghoulish green light. She summons a small clan of comrades that skip around the giant pot (not unlike the women in Isadora Duncan’s Dance of the Furies from 1911). They toast with a potion, and Madge lovingly strokes the labor of her efforts: a beautiful, poisoned scarf.
James catches up with the playful Sylph, who daintily dances for him; she pops into arabesque, accelerating into the peak position before slowly falling forward into the next pose. Her sisters clasp hands in pairs, using their partner as a barre, sweeping their long white tulle tutus up with their high kicks. James joins in the dance, showing off with high jumps, complicated by beats and folding his legs into passé.
Meanwhile, matchmaker Madge convinces Gurn to pursue Effy, who reluctantly accepts his marriage proposal. Next Madge convinces James that her magical scarf will turn the Sylph into a human. Although James gives her coins, she won’t bequeath it to him until he kneels at her feet. Oblivious to its sinister magic, James ensnares the Sylph, wrapping the shawl around her, even as she frantically bourrées and pushes away from him. Her small wings drop to the ground, and the other sylphs avert their eyes, hiding their faces behind the crook of their elbows.
The Sylph hesitantly reaches her arms forward when she loses sight, and her body shudders. The mystical creature holds no grudges, as she plucks the wedding ring (that she pilfered earlier) off her finger, kisses it and drops it into James’ outstretched hand. Watching the enchanting Sylph’s funeral procession – and seeing Effy with Gurn – crushes James, who collapses. And the schemer, Madge, triumphantly takes the stage to dance in delight.
August Bournonville’s La Sylphide story ballet might not blow you away with an onslaught of physical tricks. But the expressive gestures from this Romantic era ballet will charm you – whether it’s the silken, graceful motions of James’ Sylph sweetheart (Jurgita Dronina) or the frank arm waving of sorceress Madge (Jane Haworth). Watching this historical ballet is a treat.
Have you seen a performance of La Sylphide before – by the English National Ballet, or another company? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.