La Sylphide, ballet metaphors and dance

I have a vague memory of my very first ballet lessons — I was probably three or four and wore a yellow tutu. Since then it became clear I loved dance as a form of art and expression and I wanted to do lessons and see every ballet I could.

Life got in the way, I have been on and off from ballet classes but here I am, more than 30 years later, doing my classes at the National Ballet of Canada (they teach common people like me, which is fantastic) and this week one of my favourite pieces, La Sylphide, will be on stage at The Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. I already have my tickets.

I will obviously spoil it since it's a ballet from the early XIX century: La Sylphide was the first ballet to feature pointe work as an artistic enhancement — it works as a part of the choreography, to give the Sylphide an ethereal feeling, in contrast to the other characters, humans, who dance on demi-pointe. Filipe Taglioni, a famous choreographer, is said to have created the character for his daughter, prima ballerina Marie Taglioni. And then pointe, as we know it, became the essence of classical ballet.

The story is simple: James, a peasant in Scotland, is about to get married to Effie, but on their wedding day he gets cold feet when he sees the figure of a sylphide, and gets infatuated by her. He goes after a witch, Madge, and asks for a way to make her love him. Madge gives him a magic scarf and tells him to wrap it around the sylphide's arms. He does that, but the magic doesn't work as expected: the scarf makes the sylphide's wings to fall off, killing her. James, then, gets desperate when he realizes he's lost the sylphide, and notices Effie didn't give a fuck and is now marrying his best friend Gurn. The end.

I feel very sorry for the Sylphide every time I see it (and this will be probably the 6th time, I said it's one of my favourites), but I understand she is a metaphor for James's fear of change, of assuming a relationship with Effie, of adulthood and assuming responsibilities in life: he creates the image of a spirit of the air, falls in love with the idealization so he doesn't have to do what he doesn't feel ready to, and even asks for a magic scarf to capture his dream girl — but there's no such thing as magic, and it was only a fantasy and it was all in his mind — nobody but him could see the sylph — so in the end he has to face the tough reality of his best friend and his former bride Effie entering adulthood without him — marked in the story by the event of the wedding. It's a coming-of-age tale, where the sylphide represents his trying to escape the need of growing up, which eventually happens to all of us.

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