In a good production of this classic, two moments should be delightfully sensual; revealing too. In the first act, the farmhouse casement window opens to show us the Sylph with all the woods behind her; we feel the beauty not only of this heroine, but also of the larger natural world that she represents. And at some point in act two, James comes back and discovers that this forest does not contain one sylph but several. While it’s true enough to seek out just one of many, the scene image has the force of a scientific or philosophical breakthrough – a glimpse into a whole new layer of being.
In several subsequent romantic ballets, the hero enters the woods because he is a hunter. What he does not know is that this hunt will lead to a vision of the sublime and to love. Siegfried in “Swan Lake” hunts swans when he loses his heart to Odette the Girl with Swans, under the trees and at the water’s edge. And he discovers, to his amazement, that she is the queen of a flock of many virgin swans. When Prince Désiré in “Sleeping Beauty”, resting from a hunt, finds out that the vision of the sleeping Princess Aurora is all he has been missing in his privileged life, he is then granted an extended vision of her. in the midst of a multiplicity of wood nymphs.
As it turns out, City Ballet’s new “Sylphide” comes near the start of a two-month New York ballet period that is full of romantic-classical ballets that are the descendants of this work: “Giselle”, “Swan Lake “,” Sleeping Beauty “and” Les Sylphides “(all at the American Ballet Theater); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (at the New York City Ballet); “The Dream” (Royal Ballet, in its season at the David H. Koch Theater, June 23-28). These are not all 19th century works. At the time of the creation of Les Sylphides (1908-1909), no story was necessary: the curtain rises on an uninhibited reverie – set in the woods, of course – with a poet suspended in a kingdom populated other than by sylphs. .
This in turn leads to Balanchine’s “Serenade” (1934), where there is no more set, but which is, like most classical romantic ballets, implicitly a nocturnal set in moonlight: c he is romantic, classical and modernist at the same time. the same time. It is possible that this kind of ballet more or less ended with Balanchine’s death in 1983. But it started with “La Sylphide”; and therefore finding City Ballet to stage this work seems appropriate.
We go into the woods to leave the world we know behind. Dante does this at the start of “The Divine Comedy”; people also in more than one Shakespeare play. All followed characters from Greek mythology, in particular the hunter Actaeon, who, in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, risked, with catastrophic effect, on the goddess Diana in the bath. (Ovid also calls her Titania.) What’s in the antlers? A parallel universe where movement and perception are transfigured. Far from the known world, the transformative physics of ballet becomes free, transporting, which changes life.