Les Sylphides: The Origins of Abstract Ballet - Michigan Opera Theatre

Les Sylphides: The Origins of Abstract Ballet

By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance

With swans, snowflakes and ghosts, the ballet blanc or “white ballet” genre is known for its story ballets like Swan Lake, Giselle and La BayadéreConsidered a revival of the romantic ballets of the ballet blanc genre, Les Sylphides adds another credit to its name as the first “abstract” or plotless ballet. This one-act, ballet of “romantic reverie" consists of several “sylphs” (wood nyphs) dancing with a “poet” in the moonlight, suggestive of a romantic mood, as opposed to an actual plot or storyline.  

Defining its origins is a bit challenging. Set to the music of Frédéric Chopin, what became known as Chopiniana first appeared in 1907 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Re-worked by choreographer Michael Fokine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, it appeared as Les Sylphides in 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France, with with Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and Alexandra Baldina dancing as sylphs and Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the poet, with set design by Alexandre Benois costume design by Léon Bakst. The ballet received its North American debut by Ballets Russes in 1916 at the Century Theater in New York City. 

The New York City Ballet premiered its own version staged by Alexandra Danilova, and restored the original title Chopiniana, in 1972 at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center. 

Over the years, Les Sylphides has remained a popular staple of classical ballet repertoire. 

Share with Friends

View All

Related Posts

Josephine Baker: The Black Pearl

Born June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker grew up in a low-income neighborhood. A street dancer with no formal training, she would become the highest paid female entertainer in the world; reaching audiences throughout the United States, Europe and South America.

Read More
Revisiting Greenwood

It is not unique for work of art to be inspired by injustice or born as a response to tragedy. But when Donald Byrd was commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to choreograph a new work…

Read More
Spotlight on Tinka Gutrick Dailey

We interviewed Tinka as a part of May’s celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, and started the discussion with a passage from Tinka’s own writings about her experiences in dance.

Read More
Michigan Opera Theatre Announces 2021-22 Season

Michigan Opera Theatre announces 2021-22 Season – the first of Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director Yuval Sharon, Christine Goerke announced as Associate Artistic Director.

Read More