La Sylphide and Reels
By Nina Pinzarrone
The first Romantic ballet, La Sylphide, a two-act ballet set in Scotland, depicts a love triangle between James, a farmer; Effie, his fiancée; and a sylph, or forest spirit. Torn between real and fantasy loves, James chooses fantasy, with tragic results. The ballet premiered in 1832 in Paris to acclaim, with Filippo Taglioni’s choreography showcasing his daughter Marie as the sylph. Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer’s score, with its lilting 6/8 rhythms and buoyant 2/4 variations, especially for the female leads, lends itself to petit allegro—ballonnés, pas de bourrées, brisés, and cabrioles.
August Bournonville (1805–1879), the great Danish choreographer/dancer, saw La Sylphide and wanted to set it in Denmark for his protégé, Lucile Grahn. But no Paris Opera ballet master was available, and the music rights were expensive. Undaunted, Bournonville created new choreography following Adolphe Nourrit’s original libretto, and commissioned music from Norwegian composer Herman Løvenskjold. He expanded James’ role, dancing it himself at the 1836 premiere. Bournonville’s is the version audiences are most familiar with today.
I recommend the video recordings of Royal Danish Ballet in Bournonville’s version, with Lis Jeppesen; and Paris Opera Ballet in Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of Taglioni’s version, with Aurélie Dupont.
Rhythmic and melodic features of Scottish Highland dances (which both Taglioni and Bournonville studied) appear in both La Sylphide scores. The Highland spirit is best captured in Løvenskjold’s Act 1 reel, based on the traditional tune “McDonald’s Reel”—perfect in class for dégagés, petits battements, and petit allegro.
Reels are Scottish or Irish folk dances in 2/2, 2/4, or 4/4 meter, with regular eight-bar phrases, simple harmonic progressions, dotted rhythms, two-part structures (A B), and accents on each bar’s first and third beats. Reels can be heard in the scores for Balanchine’s Western Symphony and Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.