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
How important is La Sylphide in your artistic career?
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?
“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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
How and when did your puzzle become a production?
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?
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.
What did Ghislaine Thesmar, who also performed the role, bring to it?
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?
Extract from « En scène ! », 2013