Part of La Sylphide’s old-fashioned charm is its intricate use of mime. Because the Bournonville version of the work has been carefully and lovingly preserved since its creation in 1836, its language is that of 19th-century Romantic ballet, in which mime was inseparable from dance. With slight variations from production to production, the Sylphide has been saying the same things to her mortal love for nearly 200 years.
With the help of Lisa Bolte – ex-principal artist of The Australian Ballet and Sylphide extraordinaire – let’s look a little more closely at the woodland fairy’s lovely language.
Some of the mime in La Sylphide is easily deciphered – when the Sylphide cheekily shakes her head or finger at James, rebuking him from trying to take hold of her; when James raises his arm to swear eternal devotion (to both Effie and the Sylphide!); when Gurn hilariously mimics James chasing after the sprite. Other moments are more subtle, and sometimes there are traditions handed down in the teaching of the ballet that may not appear directly on stage, but colour the dancers’ interpretations.
For instance, at the beginning of Act II when the Sylphide and James appear in the woodland glade, they have a mime 'conversation' that goes something like this:
James: Where are we?
Sylphide: This is my forest! This is my home! And I will share it with you.
The Sylphide then rushes to bring James presents from all over her 'house'. She captures a butterfly in her hands and brings it to him to admire, but he urges her to let it go (later in the act, in the version danced by the Mariinsky, she brings James a gift of a bird’s nest with baby birds in it, in accordance with the original Bournonville libretto; he is a little horrified and makes her return it to the tree). She picks flowers for him; she gathers berries for him to eat and fresh water for him to drink. Traditionally, Lisa says, the berries are strawberries – that’s handed down from ballerina to ballerina as the ballet is taught. And the Sylphide doesn’t just bring him any old water: you’ll notice that she parts the brook with her hands to bring him the deepest and clearest part of the spring. “I love that part with the water,” says Lisa, “because she is giving him such a pure gift. This is really what the ballet is about, for me: these innocent gifts she gives James are what life is all about when we put aside the things that consume us – money, society, the things that mean nothing without these essential beauties of nature.”
Lisa suggests that there’s another reason that the Sylphide wants to welcome James with gifts. In the first act, we see the Sylphide in James’ farmhouse, “so he has shared his house with her, and now she wants to share hers with him.” This is reflected in the choreography: in James’ house, he steps first, and the Sylphide second as they dance. In the forest, the order is reversed.
In fact, the Sylphide has spent considerable time in James’ home, mooning over her beloved. In some versions of the ballet, when the Sylphide tells James of her love, she indicates a series of heights with her hands, from child-sized to man-sized, letting him know she’s been watching over him since he was a boy. In the Erik Bruhn version of La Sylphide that The Australian Ballet performs, she doesn’t do this, but she does tell him “I watch over you as you dream …” in a series of beautiful gestures where she cradles the air around him, then touches her head and flutters her hand into the air, showing a dream streaming from the mind. In Bournonville’s libretto, she even “waves her wings to cool the air he breathes”. This is no cruel flirt who steals a mortal on a whim – for the Sylphide, this love is her life.
At the end of Act II, James, maddened by his desire to possess the Sylphide, accepts a scarf from the witch Madge, who claims it will allow him to touch his fairy. He doesn’t know it is poisoned, and wraps her in it. Her wings fall off, and she dies, but not before telling James she loves and forgives him.
This passage is extra-poignant when you know that traditionally, the poison is thought to send the Sylph blind before it kills her. When she staggers forward, supported by her two fellow sylphs, she is struggling with the weakness of approaching death, and the strangeness of walking now that she can no longer fly, but she has also lost her sight. Confronting the horrified James, she shakes her finger at him in a slow, mournful repetition of her earlier flirtatious chiding, points to him and herself, then spreads her arms wide and empty: “I told you .. you shouldn’t touch me … and now … we have nothing.” But of course, she forgives him and tells him she will always love him, raising her arm once more in the sign of eternal devotion, kissing the ring he has given her and dropping it into his hands.
It’s the Sylphide’s last moment on stage, and the beautiful mime in which she declares her love and forgiveness is her last slow dance with James.