La Sylphide and the Romantic Theatre
By Erik Aschengreen
Marie Taglioni made her debut at the Paris Opera in 1827 during the very summer that Victor Hugo wrote his historical closet drama Cromwell, with the preface that became the manifesto of the French Romantic movement. Romanticism has descended on Paris - in painting, in music, in literature, and in the theatre. In the ballet, however, it was to be some years before the decisive breakthrough took place.
The Romantic ballet first won recognition with The Dance of the Dead Nuns in the third act of Meyerbeer's 1831 opera Robert le Diable. This famous scene was originally to have taken place in conventional, mythological surroundings, but Henri Duponchel, who was in charge the Opera's scenery department, conceived the idea of the moonlit cloister of St. Rosalie and the famous designer Ciceri created a fantastic decor. With its eerie nocturnal atmosphere and its strong emphasis on the closely united erotic and demonic elements, this scene struck a fundamental chord in the Romantic ideology.
The Romantic era signified a revitalisation of the ballet, which had been stagnating in mythological and allegorical subjects. Without this revival, ballet might have died as an art form, or at least as a serious art form that wished to do more than merely entertain with pretty dancing and delicious music. In the 1830s ballet regained its strength, its vigour, and its popularity as an art.
The changing of the course of ballet has something to do with the ballerina Marie Taglioni and her new way of dancing, but the revitalisation is hardly a question exclusively of Marie Taglioni's appearance on the French scene, even is she did happen to arrive on an extraordinarily fortuitous moment. The revival was concurrent with explosive developments in décor, lighting, and the art of the mise en scene that took place in the French theatre in the beginning of the 1800s. The melodramatic horror and exotic realism to be found on the boards of the boulevard theatres had anticipated the Romantic Movement before its serious writers emerged. The theatre had become new, exciting, and entertaining - not least because of the new 'popular' audience that appeared after the French Revolution. Stylistically speaking, the Romantic theatre - and also the ballet - owed a tremendous debt to the melodrama.
For the ballet, the revival meant a new style with a new exploitation of classical technique. The first major discovery was simply that of putting meaning and thought behind the steps, no longer allowing them to remain an independent series of bravura pas. This was one of the triumphs of La Sylphide, premiered at the Paris Oéra in 1832 with libretto by Adolphe Nourrit, choreography by Filippo Taglioni and music by Jean Schneizhoeffer. But the revitalisation went even further. It meant new costumes, an atmosphere redolent of night and moonlight, and the introduction of the grotesque, which was also a vital element of the Romantic drama.
August Bournonville, who was ballet master in Copenhagen 1830-77 had as young studied in Paris. In the summer of 1834 he returned to Paris for two month. He saw Taglioni's and Nourrit's La Sylphide at the Opéra with Marie Taglioni, whom he knew and with whom he had danced. Bournonville bought a copy of the libretto for La Sylphide the day before he returned to Copenhagen and two years later he produced the ballet in the Danish capital with his pupil Lucile Grahn in the title role, while he himself played the part of James. The plot followed closely the French libretto, even if Bournonville added a few scenes to strengthen the dramatic part of the story, while the music was new in Copenhagen, composed by Herman von Løvenskiold. In La Sylphide Bournonville encountered the division of mind that was characteristic of French and English Romanticism. He transported the ballet to The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, where it survived the period of Realism that devastated the Romantic ballet in every European country except Russia. However, the Danish theatre and its audience remained faithful to the repertoire of the Golden Age, and thus we can still see Bournonville's La Sylphide in Copenhagen and since 50 years also by companies all over the world. Taglioni's version was reconstructed by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera in 1972, while the Bournonville-version has been danced in an unbroken tradition since 1836.
That La Sylphide in 1832 went straight to the heart of Romantic ideology was due as much to Adolphe Nourrit who created the libretto as it was to Marie Taglioni, who walked off with the honour and the fame. The Paris Opéra's celebrated tenor understood from the depths of his soul the conflict and discord of Romanticism. He himself never succeeded in reconciling the many facets of existence into a harmonious whole; in 1839 he jumped out of a window of a hotel room in Naples, killing himself.
La Sylphide is the story of the young Scotsman, James, whose mind is divided and in a state of unrest. He does not feel really at home in the snug, bourgeois world to which he is about to bind himself this very day by marrying the sweet Effy. He loves his Effy, but he also has dreams and longings that reach far beyond this mundane existence. He dreams of another world, and the Sylphide is the symbol of that world. She lures him away from his wedding and his beloved, out into the woods. In the libretto there is a strong support for the very conflict that is James' problem and for the passion to which he falls victim. La Sylphide is one of the most striking examples of the unrest and discord that came as a shock to the Romantic period. Passions were stronger and, at the same time, there was a vibrant longing for another, more pure and genuine world. The harmony inherited from the previous generation had been shattered. In France unrest has been present ever since the Revolution of 1789 had made the world insecure. When ideas came into conflict with reality, existence was no longer harmonious. La Sylphide expresses this conflict in an ingenious way.
The outcome of the story of James and the Sylphide is tragic. When he places the scarf about her shoulders in order to draw her down into the earthly sphere, she dies. This may represent James' inability to unite in his mind the two aspects: reality and the realm of ideas. He is incapable of achieving balance and unity in his existence. The Sylphide's death is a symbolic expression of the fact that James cannot possibly achieve mental balance, and it is no accident that her death is bound up with direct erotic contact. The erotic is dangerous ground. James takes the Sylphide in his arms and kisses her; at the same time her wings fall off. Something erotic, something sensuous has come into play. In the Danish version of the libretto, the erotic element is even more apparent. Bournonville states directly that James "in his outburst of joy gives her a thousand caresses".
It is this erotic contact that is dangerous to the Sylphide. She is destined never to give happiness to the one she loves. Accordingly, throughout the second act in the forest she has avoided direct physical contact with James. Every time he reaches out for her, she eludes him, and when he finally has her in his arms, she dies. Sylphides cannot become human beings; if they are captured, they die. This can be viewed as the fantasist's impossible attempt to turn his dream into reality, but is also an expression of the view that the harmony and happiness James has experienced in the woods are shattered the moment the sensuous and the sensual are admitted.
If we turn from this interpretation of La Sylphide to Victor Hugo's preface to Cromwell, we find striking agreement in the view of humanity and outlook on life. Hugo was fighting for a new drama, which was complex as life, itself. Drama should portray actuality, and Hugo reiterates the thesis that literature is a reflection of culture and society. Essential to the ideology of the Romantic period was the fact - which Hugo emphasises a number of times in his preface - that man is a dual being. This idea entered our civilisation with Christianity, but became a crucial point for Romanticism, which questioned whether the price of harmony was the exclusion of one side of man's nature, leaving only a half-complete human being.
These two sides of man are the material and spiritual, and La Sylphide is a picture of this duality. In this ballet the duality is manifest on several planes with many possibilities of interpretation. James is torn between Effy and the Sylphide, between reality and the realm of ideas. The witch and the Sylphide each represent a principle struggling to gain control of James; the constellation of the witch versus James represents the demonic forces and man, with the former emerging triumphant. It is Madge who gives James the scarf that kills the Sylphide and, with her, his striving for a higher world. Man is in the grip of dangerous forces - at least if he ventures outside the simple and known world. Finally, the Sylphide and James represent the body versus the soul, the two sides of human nature, which according to the Romantic view - were divided by the coming of Christianity.
The concept of the witch is clearly related to Hugo's idea of the nature of a genuine work of art. In the preface to Cromwell he emphasises the necessary presence of the grotesque. The witch and her entourage is a necessary background for the purity of the Sylphide - if we choose to regard them as opposites and not as two incarnations of the demonic.
La Sylphide was thus founded on Romanticism's fundamental idea of the duality of existence, and the sadness that pervades the whole ballet was not just an effect gathered from Scottish highlands or the German forests as a device for creating a theatrical impression. The sadness comes from within and results from the feeling that existence is no longer easy and harmonious.
The Dead-Nun scene in Robert le Diable shows us how the erotic and the demonic - often tightly interwoven - are essential features in the artistic physiognomy of the period. People then believed in swans, sylphs or naiads as little as we do today. They were symbolic expressions; just as 'demonic' was the era's word for human nature's hidden and irresistible drives, which were now depicted with increasing audacity. Sexual anxiety, mental sterility, frigidity and the psychology of the seducer were bold new subjects of the time. They also 'infected' the world of ballet and they are inherent in Charles Nodier's short story Trilby ou le Lutin d'Argail which was the inspiration behind Nourrit's libretto for La Sylphide. Charles Nodier was a writer, dreamer and fantasist. He was also a botanist, philologist, bibliophile and entomologist. In civil life he had been librarian at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal since 1824 and here held a famous salon to which all the choryphées of Romanticism came. In 1821 he had been in Scotland and the following year he published Trilby, which was inspired by the Scottish landscape, by legends about brownies and other nature-beings. In a purely literary sense, he was also influenced by Walter Scott, who acted as a sort of catalyst for the new novel. Nodier's little story tells of the brownie Trilby's infatuation with and advances for the young fisherman's wife, who finally succumbs to her psychological conflicts and dies. To be sure, before this happens the brownie is driven out of the house with the help of the Church - a typical Romantic stroke, for only Christianity is able to overcome demonic power. But the demonic forces have got too strong a hold on Jeannie, and she cannot forget the dreams and longings that Trilby has aroused within her. She is divided between common earthly happiness with her husband, Dougal, and yearnings for another world, represented by Trilby. She cannot reconcile these two worlds and is thus, like James in La Sylphide, a victim of eroticism and the demonic. It is also typical that Trilby approaches Jeannie while she is sitting sleeping in her chair. A parallel to the opening scene in La Sylphide. The dream situation is the moment where we make contact with the subconscious.
Erik Aschengreen: Professor (University of Copenhagen), Doctor of Philosophy (Dr. phil.), Dance critic