The Ballets Russes and Les Sylphides
by Nina Pinzarrone
On June 2, 1909, in Paris—an auspicious day in ballet history—Serge Diaghilev presented his newly formed Ballets Russes in Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides in the form we know today. (As Chopiniana, the ballet had premiered in Russia in 1907.)
This abstract one-act is the first ballet to use Chopin’s music, the first in which music provides the movement’s primary motivation, and among the first to use a score built from short pieces originally meant for other purposes. Chopin composed his music for salon concerts, not dance, yet today his work is synonymous with ballet classes and Romantic-inspired ballet productions. Much of his music is composed in dance forms—waltzes, mazurkas, polonaises, etc.—and in even, 16-bar phrases, making it ideal for choreography and class.
An overture—depending on the production, either Polonaise, Op. 40, no. 1, or Prelude, Op. 28, no. 7—begins Les Sylphides. The ballet’s dances are performed to the following:
- Nocturne, Op. 32, no. 2 (ensemble). In 4/4 and 12/8 meter; perfect for bourrées, port de bras, and runs on pointe.
- Valse, Op. 70, no. 1 (female solo). Lends itself to jetés en avant and grand jetés en tournant.
- Mazurka, Op. 33, no. 2 (female solo). A favorite for running exercises.
- Mazurka, Op. 67, no. 3, or Op. 33, no. 3 (male solo). I often combine these for slow waltz movements, ronds de jambe à terre, or a waltzy adage in center.
- Prelude, Op. 28, no. 7 (female solo). Good for port de bras.
- Valse, Op. 64, no. 2 (pas de deux). The “B” section, with its running eighth-note melody, is perfect for relevés on pointe and bourrée combinations.
- Grand Valse Brillante, Op. 18, no. 1 (finale). Includes sections perfect for waltz steps, balancés, temps levé sautés from the corner, and jetés.
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 nine CDs for ballet class.