Real love, or just a fantasy? Staatsballett Berlin in La Sylphide

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
April 26, 2019

Veronica Posth

August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, with music by Herman Severin Løvenskjold, is one of the world’s oldest surviving ballets. Act I takes place in the hall of a Scottish farmhouse where James (Marian Walter), sleeps in a chair by the fireside. The Sylph (Luciana Voltolini) gazes upon him and dances around his chair. She kisses him and then vanishes when he suddenly wakes. James keeps thinking about the vision although is shortly to be married.

The story that follows runs around the desire of James to encounter again the dreamed and envisioned beloved being. They do meet, and keep loving each other, but the end is tragic.

Particularly beautiful are the scenes when the Sylph appears through a big window. Capturing James with her allure, they dance a delicate and sensual duet. Later, in Act II, her death has a sorrowful impact, her desolate sisters perfectly synchronised dance emphasising the anguish of the disquieted man.

Amidst the drama, La Sylphide is really about unfulfilled longings. It leads to reflections about ideal love, and in the modern world of partnering apps, about delusions and false expectations resulting from fed illusions.

Marian Walter as James, here with Maria Kochetkova as the SylphPhoto Yan Revazov
Marian Walter as James,
here with Maria Kochetkova as the Sylph, in La Sylphide
Photo Yan Revazov

The Sylph is a metaphor for something that is not existing, yet very felt and craved. As with what some do on-line, she can be seen as a shield or an escape from unwanted upsetting realities. James is really close to his wedding day, yet how much in love can he be if this image of the ideal rises up and helps him to disconnect from his betrothed.

In the end, James, in real or imagined love with the Sylph, is punished for having followed his dream. After his fantasy, he is eventually left with nothing. Is this what the ballet wants to teach us? But is it so wrong to dream; to go in pursuit of our love dreams?

La Sylphide is tragic but it makes one think about love-utopia. It is fascinating how something written in 1832 is, on some levels, still very contemporary. There is something very realistic in the story even though it runs around a dream. James loses his mind to the enchanting creature. But is she real or just a fantasy? Is she a vision or an ideal become true? Real love, hard to find and most of the times just in our minds, is a universal dream. Everyone searches for it but only few are able to find it. Is it then a state of mind? Do we need to convince ourselves about having found the true love? And once found, how do we make it last? Does romantic love inevitably transform into companionship or can it endure long-term? After all, some studies do suggest that romantic love lasts only three years before changing into something else, with less passion and more routine.

Marian Walter as James, here with Aurora Dickie as MadgePhoto Yan Revazov
Marian Walter as James,
here with Aurora Dickie as Madge, in La Sylphide
Photo Yan Revazov

The fugacity of the Sylph seems to embody the ephemeral and consuming love, that which most of the time doesn’t last. Most of the times when there is passion and strong desire there are also complications and struggles. There certainly are here, where true love, personified by a maiden who appears in a dream seems to be a convincing allegory for perfect wished love, desired and expected but near impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, the universe of love is an infinite and eclectic resource that can allow sublime pleasure and not only delusions. As Titus Maccius Plautus wrote in his comic play Cistellaria, “Amore et melle et felle est fecundissimus” (love is rich with both honey and venom).