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Sylphide Marie Taglioni 1832 2

The Rival: La Sylphide

She is not of this earth (critic Jules Janin writing about Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide)

The artist Bill Viola speaks about images as having the same ontological status as angels (Bill Viola, Art In Question, pg 75) in that however they are materialised, be they painted, sculpted, choreographed, sung or written, images are messages. For Viola, images are intermediaries between the spiritual domain and the physical world, they always point to something outside themselves. He highlights the inherent instability of images, their capacity to morph and change in response to cultural contexts, this makes images particularly powerful as they transcend time. So how do we look at La Sylphide today? Initially the dancing image of La Sylphide might appear whimsical, however a deeper investigation points to something more interesting.

Isn't it Romantic

Dance historian Ivor Guest reads it in terms of it's a broader significance, writing that La Sylphide is as significant to Romantic art as The Raft of the Medusa (Ivor Guest,The Romantic Ballet, pg 60). Adolphe Nourrit's libretto brings together key elements of Romanticism: a doomed hero in love with an unattainable woman, a moonlit landscape and a story that moved away from the world of gods toward peasant life, interiority, subjectivity and an all too human melancholy. Sally Banes develops this analysis exploring the libretto as a study of marriage and mores, for her the ballet ' the story of marriage, of socially licensed sexuality, and of what is possible and impossible, sanctioned and forbidden with respect to courtship' (Sally Banes, Dancing Women, pg 16)

Revolution and poetics

La Sylphide changed ballet and a part of this revolution included the way that ballet was written about. Writers and critics were forced to re invent language in their responses to choreographies driven not by dramatic action, Instead the new ballets such as La Sylphide and later Giselle invited audiences to immerse themselves in more atmospheric abstract scenarios driven by in a language of dance itself. This change in writing can be further explore in John G Chapman's article writing about the importance of the writer and critic Jules Janin and a move toward subjectivity, poetic writing to meet a new poetic dance form (John G Chapman, Jules Janin and the Ballet, online).

Carla Fracci and Eric Bruhn performing the 1834 Bournonville choreography of La Sylphide

Sylphs with superpowers

Unlike Giselle who Guest describes as 'a sylph without rests' which makes her sound a bit neurotic, Effie, the sylph is painted in a darker palette. For female audiences La Sylphide was a truly revolutionary heroine operating outside of what was considered proper and moving into a world where she didn't belong, she was both attractive and unattainable and more importantly driven by her own desires. Guest writes about the innovation of pointe work used as an integral part of the dramaturgy, developing the character of the sylph in a movement language defined by lightness, buoyancy and what he describes as 'a third plane midway between the ground and actual flight in the air...that could be used to suggest ineffable lightness or a moment of ecstasy' (Ivor Guest, The Romantic Ballet, pg 75)

Not quite human

Scholar Molly Englehart writes in Dancing Out of Line about the recurrence of sylphs in Victorian literature including Gwendoline in Daniel Derronda who hates to have a woolen cloth touch her and Jane Eyre who was from the other world- from the abode of the people who are dead. These ghostly heroines and their stories resonated with images in lithographs of dancers as spirits and fairies, iinviting audiences to believe that ballerinas had supernatural powers in images of them hovering above the ground.

Flight x 23

A deep desire to transcend gravity remains powerful in images produced across cultures, from the Wire- fu imported to Hollywood initially in the Washakowski sisters Matrix trilogy to todays video games exemplified in this superpower listing that features 23 different kinds of flight.

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), another story about a man who falls in love with a spirit

Ghosts and technologies

Effie, the sylph is first seen by James thorough a window and we have a continued fascination with how spirits might enter our world, haunted technologies have featured since Alexander Graham Bell saught to contact his dead brother via a spirit phone. The less benevolent ones might come through the TV(Poltergeist) via a cursed VHS (The Ring) or on Skype(Unfriended) unlike Effie these spirits might not be quite so gentle. Perhaps the closest to the sweetness of Effie might be Samantha the equally unattainable AI that Jouaqim Phoenix's character Theo falls in love with in the movie Her, although (spoiler alert) also like Effie and other sylphs she proves to be a being who defines her own drives and her own rules.

1 Guest, Ivor (2008) The Romantic Ballet 2 Gautier, Théophile (compiled and translated by Cyril Beaumont) (1932) The Romantic Ballet As Seen By Théophile Gautier 3 Sam Francis (2016-11-08) Eric Bruhn - Carla Fracci - La Sylphide 4 Raney, K (ed) (2003-01--3) Art in Question 5 Beaumont, Cyril (1944) The Ballet Called Giselle 6 Engelhardt, Molly (2009) Dancing Out of Line: Ballrooms, Ballet and Mobility in Victorian Fiction 7 8 Chapman, John, G (1989) Jules Janin and the Ballet