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La Sylphide, a waking dream

Pride of place to the French school

By Rosita Boisseau 05 July 2017

© Ann Ray / OnP

La Sylphide, a waking dream

The first great romantic ballet, La Sylphide was absent from the repertoire until Pierre Lacotte dug up, collected and assembled the pieces of the puzzle, just like an archaeologist. Meticulously, he brought new life to a masterpiece that continues to enchant us with its mystery and poetry. In 2013, at the last performance of La Sylphide at Opera Garnier, the journalist Rosita Boisseau met the choreographer and invited him to recount the extraordinary story of this ballet.

How important is La Sylphide in your artistic career?

My passion for La Sylphide, a ballet choreographed by Filippo Taglioni in 1832 to music by Schneitzhoeffer, goes back to my childhood. At the age of 10, I entered the Paris Opera Ballet School, which in those days was located at the Palais Garnier. I began using the Opera library – these days I must be its oldest reader – between lessons and rehearsals. I was fascinated. I devoured everything I could find, from works on Louis XIV to documents on Marie Taglioni, who performed La Sylphide. And I began to be genuinely obsessed by this ballet and by this woman who seemed to have fascinated every one around her. I sought out everything in existence on the libretto, the music … I was then lucky enough to see a version of it, alas incomplete, put on in 1946 by Victor Gsovsky with Roland Petit and Nina Vyroubova. I continued to forage trying to reconstitute the missing parts.

Were there any other versions of La Sylphide in existence at the time?

Not in France, unfortunately. When Harald Lander was invited to the Paris Opera, he brought with him a version performed in Denmark by August Bournonville in 1836. He had spent some time in Paris. When he got back to Copenhagen, he wanted to do the ballet and he set it to other music than Schneitzhoeffer's. I was 18 and, for a television broadcast, Lander taught me the role of James which I performed with his wife. That version of Sylphide is still on the bill at the Royal Danish Ballet.

Pierre Lacotte en répétition de La Sylphide
Pierre Lacotte en répétition de La Sylphide © Icare / OnP
“Taglioni was a phenomenon and even had carriages named after her!”

What made you begin your own research to create your version of the ballet?

After an ankle injury, I was forced to rest. I was 38 years old. To calm my frustration, I began researching into old ballets, like La Fille mal gardée which goes back to 1789, and then, of course, La Sylphide. I began to collect the critical reviews from the period, which described the sequences of steps and gave their names. I found annotated scores. I put together all the information I had unearthed at the Paris Opera and in London, where Taglioni had often danced. Queen Victoria, who drew admirably, had sketched Taglioni. I also travelled to countries like Germany, Austria and Russia where I was lucky enough to read accounts by other dancers of her manner of dancing, of behaving on stage… I even found a description of a dance class she took! I also read a lot about the period, about Romanticism, how people lived then, the fashions … Taglioni was a phenomenon and even had carriages named after her!

Did this patient archaeological work hold any surprises for you?

I made one incredible discovery. I learnt that Marie Taglioni’s grandson, Auguste Gilbert de Voisins, had entrusted the Louvre with a lot of memorabilia, her ballet shoes, her journal … Unfortunately, no one knew where the dossier was. Thanks to one of the archivists, I gained access to the cellars and finally, after a long and fruitless search, just as we were beginning to admit defeat, I spotted a place high up in one of the cellars and, miraculously, we managed to get our hands on those papers! It was incredible! Little by little, the pieces of my puzzle, after three years of research, began to fall into place.

What kind of information did you find in Taglioni’s journal?

It is full of marvellous stories and anecdotes. Comments like, for example, “This evening I danced well” or, on the contrary, “I missed such and such a thing”. One day, she confided that she had fallen into the fireplace. Another time, during a boat trip to England, she tells how that trunks containing all the costumes fell overboard. She was an incredible person. For the opening night of one of her pupils, Emma Livry, a very beautiful performer of La Sylphide, she sent her a little note in which she wrote: “Make me forget, but don’t forget me.”

Did any pieces of your puzzle remain missing?

Yes, obviously. I had the staging, the sets and the blocking of the Ballet Corps as well as bits of variations … I had to reconstitute the whole like an antique fresco of which some fragments are missing. I choreographed whole sequences in the spirit of the period, with a lot of sincerity and without flamboyancy. I trusted in my work and in my intuition. One example: at the beginning of Act II, I had no idea how the Sylph would have made her entrance. And then, there was this rock on the stage so I imagined that she could have appeared sliding over the rock. Some time later, I had the opportunity to go and work at the Mariinski Theatre in Saint Petersburg. I had access to certain documents and was lucky enough to find a drawing of the production showing just that: the Sylph sliding over the famous rock.

La Sylphide, Palais Garnier, 2013
La Sylphide, Palais Garnier, 2013 © Ann Ray / OnP

How and when did your puzzle become a production?

Curiously, I had first of all made a film of La Sylphide for television. I had this enormous dossier and obviously I wanted to do something with it. I contacted the director of the channel and suggested doing a documentary on La Sylphide. I left the dossier with him. I didn’t hear from him for months. I had reached the stage when I almost felt like giving up dance. This was in 1970. I had just married Ghislaine Thesmar. I’d found work in a factory making plastic objects in the south of France. It was there that I received a telegram one day requesting a meeting to discuss my project. I returned to Paris and after a long discussion – he wanted Russian dancers, I wanted Ghislaine Thesmar and Michaël Denard in the leading roles – we came to an agreement. We were off! After the film had been broadcast, the director of the Opera, Bernard Lefort, asked me to stage it with the dancers of the Paris Opera. Ghislaine Thesmar was to dance only two performances: she was then appointed Étoile on the strength of her interpretation of La Sylphide.

“The ballerina must control everything, must float like a feather.”

What are the stylistic features of La Sylphide?

       The performance of the female role requires the dancer to soften the sauts, to land on the stage with her legs folded to such an extent that you can’t hear her heels. She must control everything and float like a feather. Her movements must never stop abruptly but continue so that the audience holds its breath and only in a sense recovers when the movement is completed. The bust is thrust further forward than usual; the ports de bras must, to quote Théophile Gautier’s description of them, exceed in worth “long poems”. This dreamy seductress is a very delicate character to portray. For that of James, it’s a question of dancing an ecstatic being, who thinks only of one person and is oblivious to the rest of the world. He is happy and in love. These two roles are among those that the performer must really strive towards in order to dance them with profound intensity.

Michaël Denard (James) et Ghislaine Thesmar (La Sylphide) entourés des « filles de l’air » lors du tournage du ballet en 1971
Michaël Denard (James) et Ghislaine Thesmar (La Sylphide) entourés des « filles de l’air » lors du tournage du ballet en 1971 © Francette Levieux / OnP

What did Ghislaine Thesmar, who also performed the role, bring to it?

The little steps with the lower leg are very technical and must also be spiritual. Ghislaine brought that spiritual something to the hands and feet. She also infused the role with a certain mysticism. Her Sylph had something almost religious about it. She identified with the character by exploiting its poetry and grace to the full. At the end, the Sylph does not die, she fades away. Surprisingly, the comments of both audiences and critics on Ghislaine’s work were close to those ellicited by Taglioni like, for example, “waking dream” or “she doesn’t touch the ground”…

Since its premier in 1971, you have staged this ballet in a great many countries and with dancers from every horizon. What difficulties have you encountered?

It's true, I have staged it for an incredible number of companies throughout the entire world. What has maybe changed and what is the most difficult thing, particularly for the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, is the lower leg work which is complex and rapid. This feature of French classical ballet is unfortunately disappearing. Thanks to La Sylphide, this technique has been brought back to the centre stage and will survive.

Extract from « En scène ! », 2013  

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