Many ballet goers like to do their research before purchasing a ticket or attending a performance. Of course there are those who will jump into anything that is called ballet and then sit bemused through the first act before finally deciding to study the programme in the first interval. But ideally you would do some preparatory reading of what you are about to see (and hear) at home to better understand and enjoy it.
The beauty of internet is that nowadays one can find essentially everything about a particular ballet (notes on choreography, music, history, performers, etc) and even bits of video, all just by searching on Google. We would like to build our own set of fact cards on this site and make life easier for people who are just approaching ballet, so taking a cue from the Royal Ballet’s current triple bill commemorating Diaghilev and the 100th anniversary of Ballets Russes‘s first Parisian season, we will start with an abstract ballet by Mikhail Fokine:
Is this ballet for you?
Go if: You are fond of white romantic vaporous tutus waltzing on the stage. Adagio (ie. slow) dancing makes you happy.
Skip if: You prefer your ballets full-length and plot driven, with loads of pyrotechnics on the side.
Les Sylphides is a short (one act) plotless Romantic ballet, or as some would describe it, a ballet of mood, originally choreographed by Mikhail Fokine to music by Chopin. Although it is framed rather like the “divertissements in the forest” that take place in Act 2 of the full length Romantic ballet “La Sylphide”, Les Sylphides has nothing to do with and should not be confused with the former (different music, choreographer, motifs and themes).
Perhaps because of the potential for confusion with La Sylphide some ballet companies still refer to Fokine’s work by its original title: Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin, as performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1908. However named, the version danced nowadays is the one staged for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet, the 2nd of June of 1909, with an original cast led by Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina.
The ballet’s theme is that of a young man walking at night and encountering a group of white sylphs (slender young women that are spirits of the air. The name Sylph is combined from the latin sylvestris=of the woods and nympha=nymph) dancing in the moonlight. The man joins in and dances with the sylphs. Some productions characterized this man as “a poet dreaming about his inspirations” (in many programmes the male role would be called poet) but this is really a ballet about the music rather than its characters and as the Royal Ballet ‘s programme notes, each of the female dancers is named after their own movements (Valse, Mazurka, Prelude). Given the romantic atmosphere of this piece, the ballet is very approachable and a staple in the repertory of nearly every major company in the world. Women in white romantic tutus (ie. the long ones) are always evocative and who doesn’t like to spend half an hour looking at dreamy apparitions on stage?
To make an Ipod or Spotify playlist for Les Sylphides (always a good idea to try the music on before you go!) you should look for the following Chopin tracks – but note that in live performance they will have been orchestrated (see mini biography below):
1. Prelude in A (Op. 28, no 7),
2. Nocturne in A flat major (Op. 32, no. 2),
3. Valse in G Flat major (Op. 70, no. 1),
4. Mazurka in D major (Op. 33, no. 2),
5. Mazurka in C major (Op. 67, no. 3),
6. Valse in C sharp minor (Op. 64, no. 2),
7. Valse in E flat major (Op. 18, no. 1)
Les Sylphides is part of the Royal Ballet’s triple bill dedicated to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which runs from 4 May – 30 May. With Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthberson, Laura Morera, Tamara Rojo, Johan Kobborg and David Makhateli.
Choreography: Mikhail Fokine
Music: Frederic Chopin
Original Orchestration: Alexander Glazunov (Roy Douglas in the current Royal Ballet production)
Original Design: Alexandre Benois
Original Cast: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina
Premiere: 2 June 1909
Sources and Further Information
- Wikipedia entry for Les Sylphides.
- ABT’s notes on Les Sylphides.
- Australia Dancing’s entry and research materials.
- Monica Mason and artists of the Royal Ballet talking about the triple bill dedicated to the Ballets Russes, including Les Sylphides [Link]