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.
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.