The premiere of “La Sylphide” on May 14, 1832 in Paris heralded a new era in the history of dance. The old classical and popular themes were suddenly overshadowed by an enchanted world where elementals and spirits mingled with humans. Romantic ballet was born and Romanticism’s first ballerina, Marie Taglioni became a legendary success. Dancing “sur les pontes,” she created a vision of ethereal and poetic beauty that before this, had been unseen in ballet. Her father Filipo Taglioni had created the work for her from a libretto by the opera singer Adolphe Nourrit, and it remained in the repertoire of the Paris Opera until 1860.
In July 1830, August Bournonville, already an experienced choreographer with his own method of training dancers, was appointed director of ballet at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. It was here he discovered the young dancer Lucile Grahn, whom he felt would be ideal for the part of “La Sylphide.” She consequently accompanied him on his trip to Paris in May 1834 to see a performance of the ballet. The original score by Jean Schneitzerhoeffer was too expensive, but, the day before leaving Paris, Bournonville bought a copy of the programme for 2 francs and 10 sous. On the return home, Lucile was given her first important role as Astrid in Bournonville’s production of “Valdemar” (1835) in preparation for her part in “La Sylphide.”
Bournonville carefully worked out the plot of his ballet from the Paris programme before starting on his own version of “La Sylphide.” A new score was composed by the 21 year old Baron Herman S. Løvenskiold, which filled the ballet with fresh vitality and the role of James was made more demanding for Bournonville himself to dance.
The premiere at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen on November 28, 1836 was a tremendous success. Lucile Grahn started a career, which in a few years was to make her internationally famous, and Bournonville went on to create many more ballets.
Much to his annoyance, the ballet was generally regarded as a copy of Taglioni’s, but it is a triumph for him that it still survives today. The French version vanished from stage as the great ballerinas died out and it was only in Russia that “La Sylphide” stay alive into the 20th century, before it, too finally disappeared.
Bournonville’s Danish version, however has remained in the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet, and has been handed down from generation to generation without any break in tradition. It is probably the work that has best preserved the spirit and style of that era.
Colorado Ballet presents:
October 2-11, 2015
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
With live music by the Colorado Ballet Orchestra