Les Sylphides – A brief history of the ballet

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First Performance in London 1911 Digital Scan from Ballet Panorama- An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Centuries

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Photo by Theo Kossenas Media 4 Artists of Washington Ballet in Les Sylphides

Written by Robyn Jutsum

Les Sylphides, not to be confused with La Sylphide (a Romantic two-act ballet choreographed by August Bournonville in 1836) is considered the first plotless, or abstract, ballet. It was choreographed by Michael Fokine and premiered in 1909 in Paris with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Set to music by Chopin, the original cast included ballet stars of the time, Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. The Ballets Russes later performed in the ballet’s Stateside debut in 1916, a few short years after its world premiere.

The origins of Les Sylphides began 2 years before its world premiere with a 1907 debut of Chopiniana in St. Petersburg. This became the basis for Fokine’s reworked Les Sylphides.

Although in many ways a Romantic “white ballet” (in the same category as, for instance, Swan Lake), this ballet was a modern influence for 20th-century ballet. It was the first plotless, or abstract, ballet, performed in one act, where it is the “pure dance” that carries the piece, rather than an established storyline. To help provide a bit more context, the basic premise is a lone male (the ‘poet’) surrounded by woodland nymphs or, Sylphs, dancing in the moonlight.

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Chopiniana from NYCB Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle

In 1972, New York City Ballet premiered Chopiniana, a stripped down version of Les Sylphides, named after the ballet’s origin, and choreographed by Alexandra Danilova, after Michael Fokine. Unlike the original ballet, Danilova’s Chopiniana doesn’t have women in long Romantic tutus. They instead wear white leotards and simple white wrap skirts, the sleek and minimalist aesthetic similar to much of George Balanchine’s works for the company (For instance, Apollo, 1928 – women in white leotards and short white skater skirts with tights and Agon, 1952 – women in simple black leotards with tights). The original cast included Karin von Aroldingen, Susan Hendl, Kay Mazzo, and Peter Martins.

Chopiniana was overall a success. Anna Kisselgoff, a critic for the New York Times, wrote, “In presenting this new production of “Chopiniana”… the New York City Ballet staged the most sensational event of the dance season so far… There is no question that this reinterpretation… will be considered an outrage by those who keep in mind Fokine’s intentions. Yet this production must be viewed almost as a completely new ballet. On its own terms, the concept behind it proved a daring success. There has been no rechoreography. The steps, like the text of a play, have been preserved. But as in a modern dress version of a classic play, the direction gives this text new meaning.”

According to this review, Lincoln Kirstein requested that this ballet “which he saw as “the last classic ballet” before Balanchine’s “Serenade” (1934), be done for the City Ballet. It would… ‘show the continuity between Fokine’s and Balanchine’s classicism.’ ”
You can read the full review here.

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Photo from the Royal Ballet

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Photo by Andrea Mohin NY Times of Isabella Boylston and Thomas Forster

Les Sylphides was not only influential in the early years of the 20th Century, but it is still today a commonly found piece in pre-professional and company repertoires. We are enjoying visiting this classic over the course of August. There are just 2 weeks left to join our Cardio Ballet classes inspired by the ballet before we shift gears into something new for September! Sign up online or through our free mobile app which is available for download to Android and IOS devices!
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