A Little on Les Sylphides and the Romantic Era

This Saturday, May 1, 2010, California Ballet Company will be performing a Chopin Tribute, which will showcase the company and junior company in various pieces set to the music of Frederic Chopin. We hope that you will be joining us for an evening of Romantic and Romantic-influenced ballet.

LesSylphides crop for web

One of the numbers which will be featured is the Romantic classic, Les Sylphides. Many of you may have seen it, California Ballet has performed the full ballet a handful of times. But how much do you know about the romantic ballet, or the Romantic Era?


Les Sylphides is a beautiful piece set to music by Frederic Chopin. But before we can really understand the ballet, we should take a look at the era that gave it birth. It hails from the Romantic Era of Ballet – an era of long tutus and gas-lit stages. The Romantic Era was a period in the mid-nineteenth century that saw a major shift in the way that art was conceived. Paintings saw a shift from straight lines and symmetry to wild swirls and asymmetrical aesthetics. Music changed from strong, clear, and straightforward rhythm and meter to a looser, more elaborate musicality that allowed for freer artistic expression.


Ballet saw a shift from the Classical era – a time where the technique was just beginning to be developed, and as such the focus of performance was mostly on the dancing itself, to the Romantic era with a looser structure, softer and more rounded technique, where the dancers were comfortable enough with the established technique that they were able to become more expressive, and women became the most important figure on the stage. Leg and footwork became more intricate, heeled shoes were abandoned for heelless slippers, and eventually the pointe shoe began to be developed – leading to the shortening of the women’s skirts and the forming of what we now know as the tutu.

GISELLE _jennycopped

Ballet also saw a real development of the dramatic aspect of the art form during this era. Indeed, the story ballet that we’ve come to know and love are the direct product of this era. Suddenly, dancers were challenged with not only being dynamic masters of technique, but masters of the dramatic realm as well. To this day, the role that is considered by many to be the most challenging of any ballerina’s career came out of the romantic era: Giselle.


GISELLE Yvonne and Cross

Many of the ballets from the Romantic era featured similar themes in their plots, namely the conflict between man (or woman) and nature or the supernatural. This meant that ballet patrons saw a lot of sylphs, fairies, and ghosts. This is where the stereotypical Romantic tutu of flowing white tulle first was seen. This is also from where the the ballet Les Sylphides  sprung.

Let’s be clear right away. There are two ballet’s that are about Sylphs. There’s the ballet you’ll see this Saturday, Les Sylphides, a shorter ballet that actually lacks a storyline, and has multiple Sylphs onstage. And then there’s La Sylphide, a story ballet from the Romantic era about a single Sylph who enchants an engaged Scottishman, and entices him away to the woods. The ballets are often confused for each other, and not surprisingly.

Les Sylphides was choreographed at the tail end of the Romantic era, and was so named in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of both the idea of the Sylph, and the story ballet (which was first performed 50 years earlier). The suite of music used for the ballet was originally performed in 1893 under the title Chopiniana. The original choreographer, Michel Fokine, first set dance to the music under the title Reverie Romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin. The music varied slightly from the final form of the ballet, and it wouldn’t become the ballet as we know it today until 1909, under Diaghilev’s direction of the Ballets Russes.


Michel Fokine 

Les Sylphides is often referred to as a “romantic reverie”. This is truly what it is as it completely lacks a cohesive plotline. In truth, the ballet is nothing more than an exploration of the Romantic ballet style and Chopin’s music. The ballet consists of a corps de ballet composed entirely of women, two to three female soloists, and one male soloist. The only man in the ballet portrays the role of a poet, and it can be inferred that the entire ballet is nothing more than the poet’s dream, or a physical manifestation of his work. That’s the extent of the entire plot.

lessylphides This is a departure from the normal conventions of the Romantic era. Most ballets had complete, well developed plots that pitted man against the supernatural, and often took the audience on a cultural tour around the world (think of the second act of The Nutcracker where we are treated with Arabian, Spanish, and Russian variations). Instead, we see a focus on the dance and interpretation of the music. Such a technical approach would usher in a new era in ballet. Les Syphides finds itself sandwiched between the end of the Romantic era and the advent of the Neoclassical era of ballet (the beginning of which is often attributed to Balanchine’s debut of Apollo in 1928).

So if you join us on Saturday, sit back and consider what you are seeing when you watch Les Sylphides. This is the physical manifestation of a change in regime. You’re seeing the transition from the Romantic era –  a time when ballet hit it’s stride as a fully formed dance style with pointe shoes, tutus, and dynamic performers in dramatic roles, to the Neoclassical era –  a time when dancers and choreographers were turning their focus back to technique and we began to see even more dynamic dancers with more turns, higher jumps, and a lessened delineation between men and women.

Don’t miss the chance to see ballet history onstage! You may purchase your tickets with the California Ballet Ticketing Office at (858) 560-6741 or online at www.californiaballet.org.

We’ll see you at the Ballet!

–The California Ballet Staff


2 Responses to “A Little on Les Sylphides and the Romantic Era”

  1. M. Tesch Says:

    Your ballet history is way off. Les Syphides was choreographed in the beginning of the neoclassical era after the Classical era of story ballets and bravura technique. The Classical era was after the Romantic era where, yes, the pointe shoe was developed. Les Syphides was Fokine’s interpretation of the Romantic style within a plotless ballet form which was to become all the rage.

    • California Ballet Company Says:

      The name of each ballet era may differ depending upon the history you are reading. The “Classical” era to which you are referring is the era of Russian Ballet. This is not always referred to as the classical era when looking at the entire development of ballet, but is often seen as “classical” ballet by dancers and balletomanes. It was in the Russian era that you saw the development of ballets such as The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Looking at ballet from an historical viewpoint, however, you will find that many historians will refer to the classical era as that directly following court ballet, in which the art form made its change from a spectacle to a theater art. You are correct, Les Sylphides was indeed part of the neoclassical era. If you are to re-read the post, you will see that it is mentioned that this ballet was sandwiched directly between the Romantic and the Neoclassical eras, its name chosen to capitalize on the popularity of the romantic ballet La Sylphides.

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