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'LA SYLPHIDE', THE FIRST 'WHITE' ACT IN THE HISTORY OF DANCE

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 18 AUGUST 2013 — Each time one sees this enchanting ballet whether in the version of August Bournonville, with memories of the youthful Rudolf Nureyev as the passionate, besotted James, stopping all hearts with his zest for life and his high, bounding jumps in the shortest of blue kilts, or in Pierre Lacotte’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet, in which Elisabeth Platel, fragile, ethereal, has forever left her mark, it is pure magic.

It is a ballet where the choreography has been ‘rescued’, as it were, from that of Filippo Taglioni who wrote it for his daughter, Marie, in 1832. Her legendary lightness and grace launched a whole new style of dance, from the image of the romantic ballerina floating magically across the stage in a cloud of white tulle giving place to the birth of the first ‘white’ act in the history of dance, the forerunner of such classics as GiselleSwan Lake, La Bayadère, and Les Sylphides. Set in the forests and mists of the Scottish highlands, the ballet tells the story of James who dreams of an inaccessible ideal and who is lured away by the Sylphide on the eve of his marriage to Effie, a young country girl.


La Sylphide
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: A. Deniau

But despite its phenomenal success at the time, nothing was heard of the ballet after a last performance in Saint Petersburg in 1892. It was only restaged in 1971 after Pierre Lacotte, who had danced Bournonville’s version (music Lovenskjold) in his younger days, determined to recover the original work. After many years of meticulous research, he found letters from Taglioni to his artists and documents detailing the steps, which he pieced together with the help of Carlotta Zambelli and Lubov Egorova*.

In the July restaging of the work by the Paris Opera Ballet, the little sylph, the unearthly figure of James’ imagination, was interpreted divinely by Ludmila Pagliero, fey, fragile, an insubstantial supernatural figure. She was elusive, almost eerie in her strange attachment to James. Perfectly lyrical, her quick, light, precise movements were ideally suited to the choreography and her sad goodbye to James ending with her ascension into the skies was not only spectacular, but very moving.


La Sylphide
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: A. Deniau

However, one had little belief in the love story with James, for in a change of cast, the hero of the ballet was interpreted by premier danseur, Vincent Chaillet, who does not possess the exciting bravura technique demanded by this role. Chaillet, although he danced commendably, is more at ease in contemporary works and was not the warm-blooded, romantic lover one associates with the part.

Nevertheless, with the sublime presence of Pagliero and the spectacular ‘magical’ effects of the sylphides flying through the air, obtained by an ingenious system of cables and pulleys, as well as the delicate beating of their wings, the evening was pure delight. Moreover, the images of the sylphides perched in the trees as part of the ravishingly pretty décor by Marie-Claire Musson, after the designs of Pierre Ciceri, remained in one’s memory long after leaving the theatre. Lacotte’s Sylphide is one of the jewels of the company’s repertoire.

*Egorova had worked with Christian Johansson, one of Marie Taglioni’s last partners.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.



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