We’re set in Scotland, where the young Scotsman James sleeps in his chair by the fireside, suitably dressed in his woolen kilt. A Sylph, a fairy from the forest, appears in the room, and starts dancing around the sleeping James. She kisses him gently, but as he awakes, she vanishes. James is confused, and wakes another sleeping Scotsman, his friend Gurn, to ask if he also saw the Sylph. Gurn knows nothing of such creatures, and James promises to forget all about it when Gurn reminds him he is about to be married.


Evgenia Obraztsova and Leonid Sarafanov in La Sylphide © Natasha Razina

That’s right – we have ourselves another fiancé with cold feet, not unlike a certain Albrecht… James soon-to-be-wife is named Effie, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t appear with her mother and the bridesmaids in James’ farmhouse just after the Sylph has disappeared. As they arrive, James thinks he spots the Sylph over by the fireplace, and rushes over, only to find an old witch, Madge, kneeling by the fire. James is furious by disappointment.
Like any ol’ witch, Madge continues to tell the fortunes of Effie and her girlfriends. She tells Effie that James is in love with someone else, and that Effie will be married to Gurn. James loses his temper again, and throws the old witch out of the house. His fiancée and her friends hurry upstairs to prepare for the wedding, and James is again left alone.


Gudrun Bojesen in La Sylphide, Danish National Ballet. photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne

Gazing out the window, he suddenly sees the Sylph once again. She is confessing her love for him, and is crying because it seems James does not return the feelings. James resist, but after a while, he gives in, and kisses this beautiful fairy creature. What he doesn’t know is that Gurn is hiding in the shadows, spying on him. At first occasion, Gurn runs to Effie and tells her what he saw.
Effie assumes Gurn is simply jealous of the couple getting married – after all, he is saying that her husband is cheating on her with a forest-fairy. Effie and her friends are laughing at Gurn, but they will soon think differently. As the bridal procession forms, James stands aside and watches the ring he is about to give his fiancé. The Sylph once again occurs, snatches James’ ring and puts it on her own finger. She rushes into the forest, and James pursues her. Effie is heartbroken, and as the curtains fall on the first act, she falls into her mothers arms, crying inconsolably.

Second act opens in the forest. Its foggy, and one can see Madge and some other witches dancing around a cauldron, putting all sorts of ‘witchy’ ingredients into the magic brew. The content starts glowing, and Madge pulls a beautiful magic scarf from the cauldron. When the fog lifts, James enters with the Sylph, who is showing him her home. She brings him water and berries, and her sister sylphs all dances for him to lighten his mood.

Meanwhile, the wedding guests have been searching the forest for James. Gurn finds James’ hat close to where he was dancing with the sylphs, but Madge convinces him not to say anything about it to Effie, who is tired and sad for James leaving her. Madge urges Gurn to use the opportunity and propose to Effie, which he does. Effie accepts.

Later, Madge meets James in the forest, and gives him the magic scarf, and instructs him to use it to bind the Sylph to him so she can’t fly away. James is ecstatic! When he meets with the Sylph, he can’t wait to put the scarf around her, making her his forever. But something happens. The sylph loses her wings, shudders, and dies in Hames arms. Sorrowfully her sisters lifts her up and carries her away. The wedding-procession of Effie and Gurn passes in the far. James is left with nothing. Furiously, he turns to Madge, wanting to kill her. But Madge smothers him with a magic spell. As he falls to the ground, Marge exults over his lifeless body. Evil has triumphed.

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Mads Blangstrup and Silja Schandorff in August Bournonville’s La Sylphide. The Royal Danish Ballet 1999. Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne

Evil facts:

Originally, La Sylphide was choreographed by Filippo Taglioni, the gather of a rather famous ballerina, Marie Taglioni. It premiered in Paris in 1832, pretty old stuff, in other words. However, the version we know today is choreographed by the great danish (no, not like the dog) balletmaster August Bournonville, premiering four years later, in Copenhagen. Bournonville had a much stronger focus on the dramatics of the ballet, and contains a lot of pantomime. A dance audiences of our time could say, La Sylphide doesn’t really contain a lot of dancing at all. It is however one of the oldest ballets still performed today, and it was the first major romantic ballet, even before Giselle. It is the ultimate romantic story, the forever unfortunate hero, the supernatural creatures, and eventually, the tragedy and death – this ballet contains all the common denominators of the romantic period, and works well as a history-lesson for anyone that watches it.

The original score was written by the French composer Jean Schneitzhoeffer. The score to Bournonvilles version however, is written by the Danish Herman von Løvenskiold.