One of the oldest existing classical ballets, set in Scotland and first staged almost 200 years ago, “La Sylphide” explores themes of love, vengeance, and envy while examining the juxtaposition between nature and modern life. With original choreography by August Bournonville and new costumes and sets designed by Artistic Director Robert Curran. This production also includes George Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony,” the American master’s nod to the Scottish Highlands, filled with intricate footwork, a wistful pas de deux and more, all performed to Mendelssohn’s evocative score.
Louisville Ballet’s presentation of “La Sylphide” and Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony” is generously made possible by Jim + Marianne Welch and James + Elizabeth Voyles.
Act I – A castle in Scotland
It is James’s wedding day. A magical air spirit, a Sylph, kneels at his feet gazing at him lovingly as he sleeps in a chair. James awakens and sees the Sylph. He tries to catch her, but the Sylph vanishes.
Effie, James’s fiancée, enters with her aunt, the rich widow, Anna. Effie surprises James, who embraces her with unexpected intensity, believing her to be the Sylph. Effie declares that James was not thinking of her, but he reassures her of his love.
Effie’s girlfriends arrive with wedding gifts. Just as James hands her the family tartan, he notices Madge, a mysterious figure, sitting by the fire. He violently insists that her presence is a bad omen and goes to throw her out. Effie intercedes, and James reluctantly agrees to let Madge stay. Madge tells the girls’ fortunes and when it is Effie’s turn, she predicts that Effie will not marry James but will marry Gurn. In a fury, James throws Madge out, but not before she curses him, swearing her vengeance.
After Effie leaves to prepare for the wedding, James again thinks of the Sylph. Suddenly, the Sylph appears at the window, declares her love for James, and despairs that he must marry Effie. She dances for him until he is at the point of yielding to her love. Gurn enters, sees this exchange, and calls for Effie and Anna. But by the time they arrive, the Sylph has disappeared, and no one believes Gurn’s story.
The wedding guests arrive. As James prepares to give Effie her wedding ring, the Sylph snatches it away, placing the ring on her own finger. Unable to resist, James follows her into the wilderness. Family and friends rush to find them while Effie recalls Madge’s prophecy and collapses in tears.
Act II – The Wilderness
Madge conjures a magical scarf with dark power and ill intent. James tries to capture the Sylph, who continually eludes him. Gurn continues his search for James, and discovers his hat but is stopped by Madge who makes him promise not to reveal what he has found. In return, she will help Gurn persuade Effie to marry him.
Tormented by his unfulfilled passion for his beloved Sylph, James begs Madge to help him. She consents on the condition that he follows her instructions without question. He agrees and Madge gives him the scarf to drape around the Sylph. Madge promises that if he does what she says, the Sylph will be his forever.
When the Sylph returns, James does as Madge instructed, unaware of the dark power of the scarf . Trembling with pain, the Sylph sheds her wings and sinks to the ground. Giving back the wedding ring, she dies. Madge confronts James and reveals that she is avenged. Overcome with grief, James falls to the ground hearing nothing but the cruel sound of Madge’s laughter.
Rehearsal for Louisville Ballet’s La Sylphide / Photo by Shelby Shenkman 2023
Louisville Ballet Artistic Director Robert Curran discusses his inspiration for creating a brand new La Sylphide for Louisville audiences. Contrasting grounded Scottish Brutalist architecture and the light, ethereal nature of Sylphs reinforces the tension between love and envy in this one-of-a-kind world premiere.
Why did you want to create new sets and costumes for La Sylphide?
Robert Curran: This production of La Sylphide is following in what’s becoming the Louisville Ballet tradition of setting the classics in a new context that’s a little bit more relevant for today’s audience. It’s really important to keep reimagining what these stories mean, what they say, and how we say them, so that they can continue to live on for centuries longer.
Can you describe the new sets? What was the inspiration behind them?
RC: When you consider the story of James and the Sylph, these two characters couldn’t be more opposite. There’s James – with all of his masculinity, his sense of obligation, his duty to marry Effie, his sense of leadership in the family. It’s very heavy and grounded and masculine. And then you have the Sylph – who’s mythical, airy. They are air sprites, Sylphs are. And she’s mischievous. She’s free.
Scotch Symphony, staged by Philip Neal, is George Balanchine’s nod to the Scottish Highlands – inspired by his own visit to Scotland, and imbued with the spirit of La Sylphide. This work features all the hallmarks of a Balanchine ballet: intricate footwork, striking musicality, and a dreamy pas de deux.
Choreography by George Balanchine
© The George Balanchine Trust
Staging by Philip Neal
Rehearsal Assistant: Mikelle Bruzina
Music by Felix Mendelssohn
Costume Design by Karinska and David Ffolkes
Scenic Design by Arnold Abramson
Original Lighting Design by Ronald Bates, Lighting by Jesse AlFord
Costumes and Scenery courtesy of Miami City Ballet
The performance of Scotch Symphony, a Balanchine ® Ballet, is presented by arrangement with The George Balanchine Trust and has been produced in accordance with the Balanchine Style ® and Balanchine Technique ® . Service standards established and provided by the Trust.