La Sylphide

August Bournonville (1805-1879)
Premier at the Royal Theater, 1836 Se kort

By Lone Nyhuus, journalist, former dancer and choreographer, 2006

Magic seduction

For 19th century man, the supernatural aerial spirits, the Sylphs, were dangerous creatures. The Sylph comes to the man, preferably when he is asleep. With her beauty and grace she blows a desire for eroticism and passion into his soul, and when he wakes up, he rushes out into the wood as if he were obsessed. He rushes out to find this supernatural woman, out into the wild forest to sense and dance. Back in civilisation a (boring and) earthly fiancée finds herself deserted. 

A mysterious ballet 

August Bournonville was the great director of the Danish Royal Ballet in the 19th century. He created more than 50 ballets, most of them idyllic or romantic. La Sylphide is Bournonville’s version of a French ballet, created from Charles Nodier’s romantic short story Trillby ou le lutin d’Argail. And here we are, right in mysticism: the hero, James, sadly leaves his homely hearth in the quest for magic.

Grace and force 

In the Danish version of the ballet, the Sylph dances her seductive solos with the characteristic, gracefully rounded arms of the Bournonville style. Through the codes of pantomime, her counterpart, the witch, tells of her hateful heart and her wish to punish James for having cast her off, away from the heat of the hearth. And James, our hero, leaps, dances and spins in front of our gaping eyes. Precisely in the same way as Bournonville, who was an excellent dancer, impressed the audience of his time. 

She must die 

Bournonville’s style and his ballets have been handed down from one dancer to the next. From generation to generation. That is why we can still, to this very day, witness James’ split between the supernatural Sylph and the earthly girlfriend. And witness how James helplessly watches the Sylph fall down, take her last breath and die. Because he doesn’t know how to unite the two aspects of himself: the carnal with the ethereal, the erotic with the spiritual. 

The Royal Ballet's setup of La Sylphide in the season 2004/05 with solo dancer Thomas Lund as James. Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne.
Lucile Grahn-Young (1819-1909). M. Pössenbacher/Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Performing Arts

Did you know?

Source: Det Kongelige Teater

La Sylphide has been performed more than 700 times by The Royal Ballet and is the ballet that has been performed most times at the Royal Theater. The ballet is only surpassed by Naples, which is also made by Bournonville. When La Sylphide was first staged at the Royal Theater in 1836, it was with August Bournonville himself in the role of James.

The committee's justification

By The Committee for Performing Arts, 2006

In 1836, August Bournonville choreographed La Sylphide after a French ballet of the same name with new music by Herman S. Løvenskiold, and he interpreted one of the principal roles himself. It is a breakthrough work for Romantic ballets. With its white-dressed, soaring, mythological sylphs, it lifts the viewer into another universe. La Sylphide is a reflection of its time and explores the ideal world of romanticism in depth; however, that world’s problems are still spellbinding for today’s audiences. La Sylphide is about existential choices in life, of dreams and pain suffered when dreams are broken. La Sylphide takes place in Scotland, where the young James, on his wedding day, runs into the forest with a sylph. He leaves his middle-class, safe life behind for a bolder venture, and goes under.

The romantics were fascinated by eroticism, which they found enthralling, but also dangerous to one’s fate. La Sylphide is a deeply passionate work that still affects us painfully when James is broken attempting to capture his dream. La Sylphide showcases the Romantic perception of the person as a dual being, comprised of soul and body – and it is the body that hampers the person in the journey towards the heavenly.
With its division and its tragedy, La Sylphide is not typical of Bournonville’s ballet world, which is dominated by brightness, such as in his Napoli (1842). However, it is the greatest Bournonville ballet. With its portrayal of very human characters and its beauty, it is not only the finest ballet in the Danish classic repertoire; internationally, it also remains one of the greatest.

La Sylphide was first performed at the Royal Danish Theatre on 28 November 1836.


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