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La Sylphide

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This question is based on the dvd of La Sylphide with Sorella Englund as Madge.

The moment I am wondering about is after Madge resuscitates James and he dies from his grief. To me the look on Madge's face, at that point, is one of almost horror at the realization of what she has done. And yet when I look up various descriptions of the story they talk about Madge exulting in her victory. For me Leigh Witchel's phrase in a previous post "ambivalent triumph" expresses best the closing scene.

I was also interested to read Alexandra Tomalonis's article La Sylphide Restored where she writes: "There were suggestions in the late 20th century that Madge is really in love with James, or is a Sylph who has lost her wings." Although I didn't feel in this production that Madge was in love with James, it seems to me, at this point she understands the evil she has committed. And in that realization the evil all the more powerful.

Does anyone else see that moment of regret in Madge's face? How do you interpret the final scene?

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I never had a sense of regret from Englund's Madge. I always got the feeling that she had been scorned by men all her life and was taking her revenge on this one, who had insulted her -- but also rejected her. (I never asked Englund this, so I don't know what her intentions are, I hasten to add.) She spits at James, and I don't think someone would do that if they were feeling regrets. Her final gesture is definitely triumph -- the raised arms. The other Madge of this time was Kirsten Simone, outlaw to Englund's outcast, and she was definitely triumphant. (I add that because during this period, the ballets were directed, in the way that plays were directed, and the casts were usually in sync.)

The idea that Madge and the Sylph were sisters, that Madge was in love with James, etc., comes from Danish critics rather than dancers -- or at least had at the time of that filming.

How do others read this scene?

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I've always liked interpretations that are Ratso Madgeo. When James initially asks her what she's doing sitting at his hearth, she takes "HEY! I AM SITTIN' HERE!" I prefer it to be not Madge as a witch so much as a person who has been denied hospitality in a friendly house, which obviously has it in plenty to be offered, especially on a happy occasion. So it goes to the relentless deserts of James, who, like the men of Sodom, wished to violate the custom of hospitality.

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I'd always thought James and Madge were known to one another before the meeting in Act I. There had been at least one unpleasant encounter which leads James to his inhospitable behavior.

He has never seen the Sylph before but she has watched him since he was a child, watched him grow into the man she loves.

Perhaps Madge has also watched .. and waited.

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Yes [ referring to Mel's post above; zerbinetta and I were posting at the same time], she makes a gesture of warming her hands when asked, "What are you doing here?" There was a custom iin The Good Old Days that anyone was entitled to warm him/herself and have a meal. One. James breaks the code of hospitality.

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Could you also resolve an argument? In this performance with Englund are the roles for the 4 witches helping Madge performed by male or female dancers?

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I think Englund as Madge is attracted to James, and that's what we see when he dies -- ahw knows it but it is a thron in her flesh, but when she loses even that last shred of a chance, it hits her as regret -- but then she scorns her weakness, and she's beat him in THIS respect, so she triumphs, but there's no joy in it. That's how I read it.

But no two ways about it, Englund's is a GREAT performance.

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Englund's performance as Madge with the Royal Ballet last season and the season before were the subject of great debate in some circles. If you watched closely, she seemed to signal to the audience that she herself had been/was a sylph, lifting her own skirts to display the soft white skirt underneath. I have yet to watch her on the DVD to see if she had been doing this before? It's very quick - and very easy to miss. Kobborg, in an Insight Event at the ROH, said that in his vision, it is ambiguous if James dies or not, and if Madge is/was a Sylph or not. I have yet to fully suss out what I think is happening - but I do think Englund's Madge is distinct from the others I have seen here with the Royal.

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An interesting discussion. I was wondering to what extent -- in the Royal Danish or other major companies -- an individual dancer is free to interpret or reinterpret a major role like this? Do certain artists get a "pass" from the rules of choreographic tradition or directorial control? I'm not arguing against this, but I wonder how it is justified? And what do you think of it, especially when done by an artist less skilled and conscientious than Englund.

P.S. This occurred to me after reading in the Kavanagh Nureyev about his arbitrary decision to perform a series of entrechats six for the traditional brises voles in Giselle Act II. Apparently, the reason for doing this had to do do with N's own sense of what would make a bigger impression for him, rather than anything historically- or character-based.

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Could you also resolve an argument? In this performance with Englund are the roles for the 4 witches helping Madge performed by male or female dancers?

Male dancers. A company tradition is for these roles to be taken by aspirant boys (16-18)

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One of Kobborg's idea is that Madge realises that she's got what she has spent so long planning for and that now her life is empty - which would explain her look of regret. I'm sure that Englund has done the 'I was once a Sylph' interpretation before the Royal Ballet production - but she doesn't always do it. I think Kobborg is happy to leave a degree of ambiguity to give the audience the chance to read into it what most resonates with each individual - which is fine by me.

As to the degree others are allowed their own interpretations: I've just been reading a new book by Thomas Lund and Ole Norlyng in which Gudrun Bojesen talks about the experience of dancing the Sylph with Nikolai Hubbe, Mads Blangstrup and Lund: they are all quite different and as it's Hubbe's production and he coached the other two, evidently they're allowed to find their own way through. (And incidentally it's fascinating that Hubbe, who believes the Sylph is only in James's head, makes Bojesen herself believe that she has no existence and is being imagined by him.) Certainly the Royal Ballet's sylphs are all different from each other. The Madges were all coached by Englund and they all do the ending differently, so far as I remember.

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Found this on the web last night -- an interview with Sorella Englund from Dancing Times Magazine. Nov 2, 2005.

Englund believes that it was Madge’s position on the fringes of society that helped her develop her talent as a fortune-teller. “She became very good at observing people. When you’re not the focus of attention, you see things very clearly and how other people act.

“And so on the wedding day, she sees James, who in her eyes, has everything. And he very rudely kicks her out, maybe because he knows that she knows the same landscape as he does. Maybe that was the last straw. Now she decides to take revenge and won’t give up until it’s finished.

“In the end, she gets her revenge. Her plan worked, because she is very intelligent. And now she is lonelier than she has ever been in her life. The emptiness is even bigger, because there’s nothing left, no plan, no passion. Her question is, ‘what now?’”

From
Talking About Madge An Interview with Sorella Englund
by William Anthony

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“In the end, she gets her revenge. Her plan worked, because she is very intelligent. And now she is lonelier than she has ever been in her life. The emptiness is even bigger, because there’s nothing left, no plan, no passion. Her question is, ‘what now?’

From Talking About Madge An Interview with Sorella Englund by William Anthony

This is the ballet from Madge's point of view. It's interesting, but rather reminds me of Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which the main characters in the unfortunate events at Elsinore turn out to be ... Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern!

A dancer's interpretation can often become deeper and more committed if he or she develops a back story for the characater. But is an interpretation like this accessible to the audience actually watching the ballet?

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Your point, Bart about "is an interpretation like this accessible to the audience actually watching the ballet" struck a chord with me. I interpreted Madge's loss/emptiness as comprehension of the evil that she had committed...

So out of this arises the question -- whose interpretation is the most valid one or are they all equal?

On another point -- I hadn't realised that James did not die in Bournonville's original productions.

At this moment the fortuneteller enters to rejoice at James's despair and counters his reproaches with the icy laughter of revenge. She points to the background, where Gurn is leading Effy to the altar. The Sylphide's strength is decreasing little by little. James is at her feet. Her sisters surround her, and in their arms she breathes forth her spirit. Sylphs and sylphides veil the beloved body and carry it away through the air. Overcome with grief, the unfortunate James casts yet another look at his airy mistress and falls to At this moment the fortuneteller enters to rejoice at James's despair and counters his reproaches with the icy laughter of revenge. She points to the background, where Gurn is leading Effy to the altar. The Sylphide's strength is decreasing little by little. James is at her feet. Her sisters surround her, and in their arms she breathes forth her spirit. Sylphs and sylphides veil the beloved body and carry it away through the air. Overcome with grief, the unfortunate James casts yet another look at his airy mistress and falls to the ground in a swoon.

The Ballet Poems of August Bournonville: The Complete Scenarios, Appendix Two
by Patricia McAndrew et al.
Dance Chronicle
, Vol. 6, No. 1. (1983), pp. 52-78.

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This occurred to me after reading in the Kavanagh Nureyev about his arbitrary decision to perform a series of entrechats six for the traditional brises voles in Giselle Act II. Apparently, the reason for doing this had to do do with N's own sense of what would make a bigger impression for him, rather than anything historically- or character-based.

No, no; you see, he was under the telepathic control of the previously unknown cousin of Marius Petipa, Izzy, about whom, more anon, perhaps next August....

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Hey, thats an interesting topic! I would like to warm it up.

I have always interpreted Sorella Englund's Madge as being in love with James, as a contrast to many other witches who just incarnate evil. Until recently I only knew her Magde from the dvd and I read her expression in the end as far from triumph, it looks more like despair to me. One subtle thing she does, right at the end, just before the curtain falls, is the way she holds her arms lifted: for a long time the curve of her arms is exactly the same as the the arms of the sylphs behind her. That made me think that somewhere inside she is an old and withered sylph.

But back to Madge's love for James: I was confirmed about this interpretation as I saw Englund as Madge this April when she danced in the farewell-performance of Nikolaj Hübbe, doing his last James:

After the death of the sylph, James asks her "why?", falling to his knees in front of her. Englund then took his face between her hands and kissed him, and he fell to to the ground, not yet dead but completely destroyed and very close to madness. Afterwards he was forced by Madge to watch Effy passing by with Gurn, and then he broke down and died.

This Madge was certainly in love with James!

It was one of the most an horrifying moments I have ever experienced in the theatre.

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Thank you for reviving the topic and for adding that beautiful description, Anne.

I had never seen a Madge turn tender at the end -- or at any point with James. It's a very intriguing, unsettling interpretation.

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One of Kobborg's idea is that Madge realises that she's got what she has spent so long planning for and that now her life is empty - which would explain her look of regret. I'm sure that Englund has done the 'I was once a Sylph' interpretation before the Royal Ballet production - but she doesn't always do it. I think Kobborg is happy to leave a degree of ambiguity to give the audience the chance to read into it what most resonates with each individual - which is fine by me.

As to the degree others are allowed their own interpretations: I've just been reading a new book by Thomas Lund and Ole Norlyng in which Gudrun Bojesen talks about the experience of dancing the Sylph with Nikolai Hubbe, Mads Blangstrup and Lund: they are all quite different and as it's Hubbe's production and he coached the other two, evidently they're allowed to find their own way through. (And incidentally it's fascinating that Hubbe, who believes the Sylph is only in James's head, makes Bojesen herself believe that she has no existence and is being imagined by him.) Certainly the Royal Ballet's sylphs are all different from each other. The Madges were all coached by Englund and they all do the ending differently, so far as I remember.

The "I was once a Sylph too" interpretation was done by Irina Zibrova in Johan Kobborg's staging for the Bolshoi. In Zibrova's case it was intriguingly apt - being still a rather young woman and not at all ugly or repulsive. She grew very tender at the end and seemed to regret the fatal outcome. Kobborg also sort of suggests a romantic relationship between James and Madge, the double outcast - thrown out of the household and out of his heart.

When Gennady Yanin performed Madge on the second night at the Bolshoi these ideas were wisely left out and he played it in the more traditional way.

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Thank for that highly interesting information! It's certainly a very radical interpretation to make Madge an attractive woman, and it makes it more believable that she and James have had some sort of relationship in the past. But somehow I think it blurs the contrasts in the cast: It's a giant step from having Madge played by a man, as she was by the premiere in 1836, to letting her be a young and attractive woman. It makes the psychology very modern and less archetypical, less fairytalelike. In my opinion it narrows down the interpretation instead of broadening it. (Madge was, I must say, also played by female dancers in Bournonville's time, but she was always very witch-like.)

It also takes a lot of weight from the contrast between Effy and the Sylph, when you let in a third "rival". Somehow I could imagine that it makes the dramatic balance topple from being a conflict between the safe, wellknown world, represented by Effy, and the dangerous, but compelling forest world, represented by Madge and the Sylph, to being a conflict between to forces of nature, which leaves Effy a bit lost on the sidelines. Maybe I'm just influenced by the Danish tradition, where a lot of effort is done to make Effy and Gurn real and likable characters and thus representing a true alternative to the Sylph-world.

But it's really interesting to hear about these different interpretations! It shows that the ballet is full of possibilities. Maybe it's easier for not-Danish companies to make these experiments because they are not bound by tradition. And I think it's good so, because it helps highlighting some aspects of the story which might be overlooked in Copenhagen because of the closeness to the subject. But also in Copenhagen I think they are very good at keeping the ballet alive: none of the many performances I have seen of La Sylphide with the RDB have been alike. It seems that the limits of experimenting with the charakters and their psychology are very wide, even in the same production. Only when it comes to the more general setting there are very definite limitations. And it probably has to be so in the house where the Sylph was born and kept alive for 172 years. Like Nikolaj Hübbe said once and I quote from memory: There's no need to add colours to a Rembrandt.

A new book on La Sylphide has been published in Denmark some months ago:

Anne Middelboe Christensen: "Sylfiden findes. En svævebog". It's a terrific book for all lovers of Bournonville's Sylphide, the only problem for most members of this board is that it is in Danish. But if you understand just a little scrap of Danish, the book is a treasurebox full of facts about the history of the ballet and it's interpreters during time, AND some absolutely fantastic black and white stage- and backstagephotos made especially for this book by the photographer Jan Grarup, who normally makes warzone-photos. There are many pictures by other photographers too. The book is worth having for the pictures alone.

You can see some of the photos if you zap around in the homepage for the book: Anne Middelboe Christensen: Sylfiden. En svævebog

The title means something like: "The Sylph exists. A floating book".

The last word "svævebog" is an invention of the author and doesn't exist in Danish, but of course it's an allution to the floating world of the sylphs.

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Thank for that highly interesting information! It's certainly a very radical interpretation to make Madge an attractive woman, and it makes it more believable that she and James have had some sort of relationship in the past. But somehow I think it blurs the contrasts in the cast: It's a giant step from having Madge played by a man, as she was by the premiere in 1836, to letting her be a young and attractive woman. It makes the psychology very modern and less archetypical, less fairytalelike. In my opinion it narrows down the interpretation instead of broadening it. (Madge was, I must say, also played by female dancers in Bournonville's time, but she was always very witch-like.)

It also takes a lot of weight from the contrast between Effy and the Sylph, when you let in a third "rival". Somehow I could imagine that it makes the dramatic balance topple from being a conflict between the safe, wellknown world, represented by Effy, and the dangerous, but compelling forest world, represented by Madge and the Sylph, to being a conflict between to forces of nature, which leaves Effy a bit lost on the sidelines. Maybe I'm just influenced by the Danish tradition, where a lot of effort is done to make Effy and Gurn real and likable characters and thus representing a true alternative to the Sylph-world.

But it's really interesting to hear about these different interpretations! It shows that the ballet is full of possibilities. Maybe it's easier for not-Danish companies to make these experiments because they are not bound by tradition. And I think it's good so, because it helps highlighting some aspects of the story which might be overlooked in Copenhagen because of the closeness to the subject. But also in Copenhagen I think they are very good at keeping the ballet alive: none of the many performances I have seen of La Sylphide with the RDB have been alike. It seems that the limits of experimenting with the charakters and their psychology are very wide, even in the same production. Only when it comes to the more general setting there are very definite limitations. And it probably has to be so in the house where the Sylph was born and kept alive for 172 years. Like Nikolaj Hübbe said once and I quote from memory: There's no need to add colours to a Rembrandt.

A new book on La Sylphide has been published in Denmark some months ago:

Anne Middelboe Christensen: "Sylfiden findes. En svævebog". It's a terrific book for all lovers of Bournonville's Sylphide, the only problem for most members of this board is that it is in Danish. But if you understand just a little scrap of Danish, the book is a treasurebox full of facts about the history of the ballet and it's interpreters during time, AND some absolutely fantastic black and white stage- and backstagephotos made especially for this book by the photographer Jan Grarup, who normally makes warzone-photos. There are many pictures by other photographers too. The book is worth having for the pictures alone.

You can see some of the photos if you zap around in the homepage for the book: Anne Middelboe Christensen: Sylfiden. En svævebog

The title means something like: "The Sylph exists. A floating book".

The last word "svævebog" is an invention of the author and doesn't exist in Danish, but of course it's an allution to the floating world of the sylphs.

Of course, as you can see Anne, it are Danes (Kobborg, Englund) who initiate and suggest these different interpretations, be it on non-Danish ground. In Kobborg's production staged for the Bolshoi I didn't think though that Effy and Gurn were particularly strong or likeable characters, they seemed to disappear somewhat within sets and costumes, if you know what I mean. I didn't really care what became of them. Yet perhaps that had also something to do with the casting.

Thanks for the hint about the book!

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Of course, as you can see Anne, it are Danes (Kobborg, Englund) who initiate and suggest these different interpretations, be it on non-Danish ground. In Kobborg's production staged for the Bolshoi I didn't think though that Effy and Gurn were particularly strong or likeable characters, they seemed to disappear somewhat within sets and costumes, if you know what I mean. I didn't really care what became of them. Yet perhaps that had also something to do with the casting.

Yes, it's true, most productions abroad are made by Danes, but I guess they feel much more free to experiment when working abroad and with foreign dancers. When Peter Schaufuss made his version of La Sylphide with the RDB som 15 years ago, he met a lot of opposition among both dancers and from parts of the audience too, who thought he was not true to the original. He didn't experiment a lot, but he changed the dress of the sylphs, with more laces, foliage on the skirt and a string of pearls round the neck, a bit like a porcelaine figure from the early 19. century. The Sylph was very bourgeois. In the time after the premiere those extra features "disappeared" one by one, and when Schaufuss left the post as balletmaster, they turned back to the old sets and costumes. He made the same production in Berlin a couple of years ago (I haven't seen it, but it looks like the same from the pictures and the description), and it runs for the third season now and seems to be a succes. A foreign company and a foreign audience are more open, but maybe also less critical because they don't know the original. They can't compare.

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Despite the change in scenery and costumes, my impression of Bojesen's Sylph from just a few years ago was that it was bourgeois. I imagined her with a pink sweater set and a strand of pearls!

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Yes, it's true, most productions abroad are made by Danes, but I guess they feel much more free to experiment when working abroad and with foreign dancers. When Peter Schaufuss made his version of La Sylphide with the RDB som 15 years ago, he met a lot of opposition among both dancers and from parts of the audience too, who thought he was not true to the original. He didn't experiment a lot, but he changed the dress of the sylphs, with more laces, foliage on the skirt and a string of pearls round the neck, a bit like a porcelaine figure from the early 19. century. The Sylph was very bourgeois. In the time after the premiere those extra features "disappeared" one by one, and when Schaufuss left the post as balletmaster, they turned back to the old sets and costumes. He made the same production in Berlin a couple of years ago (I haven't seen it, but it looks like the same from the pictures and the description), and it runs for the third season now and seems to be a succes. A foreign company and a foreign audience are more open, but maybe also less critical because they don't know the original. They can't compare.

They can 't compare, that's true. Moreover in some cases it's really about small things that change. That Zibrova at the end of the ballet briefly lifted three inches of her skirt to reveal a sylph's tutu was something that many of the audience members didn't even notice, let alone that they would question it.

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Sounds like the dementor's kiss in Harry Potter. It DOES sound horrifying.

And I add my thanks to you for reporting on this.

Just goes to show how strong the life in a classic can be.

Hey, thats an interesting topic! I would like to warm it up.

I have always interpreted Sorella Englund's Madge as being in love with James, as a contrast to many other witches who just incarnate evil. Until recently I only knew her Magde from the dvd and I read her expression in the end as far from triumph, it looks more like despair to me. One subtle thing she does, right at the end, just before the curtain falls, is the way she holds her arms lifted: for a long time the curve of her arms is exactly the same as the the arms of the sylphs behind her. That made me think that somewhere inside she is an old and withered sylph.

But back to Madge's love for James: I was confirmed about this interpretation as I saw Englaund as Madge this April when she danced in the farewell-performance of Nikolaj Hübbe, doing his last James:

After the death of the sylph, James asks her "why?", falling to his knees in front of her. Englund then took his face between her hands and kissed him, and he fell to to the ground, not yet dead but completely destroyed and very close to madness. Afterwards he was forced by Madge to watch Effy passing by with Gurn, and then he broke down and died.

This Madge was certainly in love with James!

It was one of the most an horrifying moments I have ever experienced in the theatre.

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The discussion of Madge's love for James brings back Barbara Stanwyck's performance of the aging matriarch in the pot-boiler TV series "The Thornbirds". In a passionate scene she confessed her love for the priest Richard Chamberlain...come to think of it, she would have been a great Madge.

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