Artists of The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo Jeff
The ballet La Sylphide, first performed in Paris in 1832, introduced the period of Romantic ballet. Marie Taglioni danced the part of the Sylphide, a supernatural creature who is loved and inadvertently destroyed by a mortal man. The choreography, created by her father Filippo Taglioni, exploited the use of toe dancing to emphasise his daughter's otherworldly lightness. La Sylphide inspired many changes in the ballets of the time in theme, style, technique and costume. Its successor Giselle (1841) also contrasted the human and supernatural worlds and, in its second act, the ghostly spirits called wilis wear the white tutu popularised in La Sylphide.
Ballet during the Romantic era was not just focused on the subject of otherworldly beings. The Austrian dancer Fanny Elssler popularised an earthier character. Her most famous dance, the Cachucha (in Le Diable Boiteux, 1836), was a Spanish-style solo performed with castanets, and she often performed stylised versions of national dances.
Women dominated the Romantic ballet. Although talented male dancers such as the Frenchmen Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Leon were performing, they were eclipsed by ballerinas such as Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, the Italians Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito and others.
In Paris itself, however, ballet began to decline. Poetic qualities gave way to virtuosic displays and spectacle. Male dancing was neglected. Few ballets of note were produced at the Opéra during the second half of the 19th century. An exception was Coppèlia, choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon in 1870, but even here the principal male role of Franz was danced by a woman.
Denmark, however, maintained the standards of the Romantic ballet. Danish choreographer August Bournonville, who had studied in Paris, not only established a system of training but also created a large body of works, including his own version of La Sylphide (1836). Many of these ballets are still performed by The Royal Danish Ballet and companies throughout the world.
Russia also preserved the integrity of ballet during the late 19th century. A Frenchman, Marius Petipa, became the chief choreographer of the Imperial Russian Ballet. He perfected the full-length, evening-long story ballet that combined set dances with mimed scenes. His best-known works are The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Swan Lake (co-choreographed with the Russian Lev Ivanov), both set to commissioned scores by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.