Now, I have seen a lot of ballet in my life. A lot. And of course, after spending countless hours in those red velvet seats, I have an opinion about most choreographers. Nonetheless, I cringe when people ask me to pick my favorite ballet. Usually I get around it by picking a few – at least one story ballet and one abstract. However, if I were forced to single one out, it would have to be La Sylphide. In my humble opinion, La Sylphide is the brightest star among the many masterpieces that make up the Royal Danish Ballet’s Bournonville heritage. And part of the reason is that, unlike the rest of Bournonville’s works, it doesn’t have a happy ending. It is, in fact, quite tragic. Which might have something to do with the fact that Bournonville didn’t actually come up with the story himself – he snatched it from an Italian guy named Filippo Taglioni. But that’s another story. Kind of.
So what makes La Sylphide so special? Well, the choreography is timeless and gorgeous. But that can be said of many ballets. What makes La Sylphide unique is the story. The heartbreakingly beautiful love story between James and the Sylph. A tale of love that cannot be, because the Sylph is a creature of the woods, who can never be with a human. A story that, even as it celebrates its 176th birthday, still seems as relevant as ever. Not because those pesky creatures of the woods always show up at the most inconvenient of times, making weak men fall in love with them. No, it’s because La Sylphide has it all. Love – not only forbidden, but also unrequited. Doubt, deceit and despair. An ending that is not only sad, but downright destroying – and therefore never fails to make me cry.
In short, La Sylphide is that ballet. It’s the one that I would choose, if I could only see one ballet for the rest of my life. The one that I recommend, when people ask me where to start. Or, in the words of one of my favorite artists, when asked what he would do, if his career as a dancer were to end tomorrow: »I would say, let me dance La Sylphide one more time.«
The Royal Ballet here in London ends its run of La Sylphide on Friday. But in a few months, those of you who live in Copenhagen (or are willing to shell out a bit of cash for a plane ticket or a train ride – trust me, it’ll be well worth it) will have the chance to see a very special performance of this heart wrenching love story. Thomas Lund, who is a principal dancer with The Royal Danish Ballet, will be dancing La Sylphide as his very last performance before he retires from dancing. And Mr. Lund is one fine James. Which means that I will be there with bells on. Bawling my eyes out.
I will leave you with a few more words about this magic masterpiece:
La Sylphide is a love story. But it is also a story about disruption and temptation. And about death.
La Sylphide is the story of the young Scotsman James. Who is about to marry the sweet, pretty and very plain girl Effy. And he is fine with that. In fact, he is looking forward to the wedding. Until the Sylph shows up. With her, temptation enters his life. And disruption. Because James truly is very fond of Effy. But the Sylph is beautiful. And enticing. And she wants James – all of him.
La Sylphide is a story about a witch named Madge. Who shows up at James’ house on his wedding day, wanting to tell his bride’s fortune. James throws her out, but only after she has declared that Effy’s future lies with another man – the young Gurn, who is watching the events from apart. And who is in fact in love with Effy.
La Sylphide is also a story about a veil. A poisonous, pink veil. That is given to James by Madge, who solemnly promises that it will help him make the Sylph his. Forever. A veil, that James, filled with joy and passion, wraps around the Sylph – and seconds later, with horror in his eyes, he watches as she trembles with pain, loses her wings and sinks to the ground. Devoid of life.
La Sylphide is a story about revenge. And about a young man who loses everything. Because he loves.