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La Sylphideinterpretations of Madge


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#16 Anne

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Posted 05 August 2008 - 08:06 AM

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.

#17 carbro

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Posted 05 August 2008 - 05:11 PM

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.

#18 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 12:45 AM

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.

#19 Anne

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Posted 16 August 2008 - 07:47 AM

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.

#20 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 17 August 2008 - 12:57 AM

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!

#21 Anne

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Posted 19 August 2008 - 08:28 AM

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.

#22 Helene

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Posted 19 August 2008 - 09:03 AM

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!

#23 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 19 August 2008 - 09:56 AM

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.

#24 Paul Parish

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Posted 19 August 2008 - 02:34 PM

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.



#25 atm711

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Posted 19 August 2008 - 03:19 PM

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.

#26 Anne

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 03:54 AM

Sounds like the dementor's kiss in Harry Potter.



I had that notion myself! She did indeed suck life and brain out of him by that kiss. There was not much tenderness in it. Like the dementors she maybe hoped to have him transferred to her world through that kiss, and when he dies instead, she despairs.
In the small video Alexander Kølpin has made about this very performance you can actually see that scene in a very short glimpse from a rehearsal room. I made a link to this video in an other post on this board earlier this summer on July 30.

#27 Anne

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 04:09 AM

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!

I can see your point. But somehow the sylph IS a bourgeois dream, a purely romantic figure. Today she would of course look different. But I think it's nice to be free to add these extra features to her in your mind instead of having them done for you on the stage. That makes her ONLY bourgeois and not bourgeois AND many other things.

#28 Nanarina

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Posted 29 August 2008 - 03:47 PM

:angry2: :P Madge in La Sylphide

There have been a number of different productions, where Madge has not only been played by a woman, but also by a man. So in a way their portrayal, will vary due to this. I can remember working with Ballet Rambert, in what must have been nearer to the Danish version, which was produced when the Company was unable to afford the fees for Taglioni and her Father.
In recent years Pierre Lacotte has revised the original production for the Paris Opera Ballet, which involved considerable research, in his production Madge is played by a Man. (DVD with Aurelie Dupont and Mathtui Ganio,) I do not get the impression Madge is anyway in love with James. To me she is a fortune teller and head of a coven who make spells and remedies In Act 1, when she enters the home of Effie to shelter, she tells the young couple, after reading their palms, they will never marry. But seems to favour Gurn's chances with Effie.

When James beguiled by The Sylph, follows her into the woods, he is desparate to catch her, and appeals to Madge to help him do so. Which she does by producing the fateful scarf. However, this is not without warning, as she firmly tells James how to use the scarf, and not to let it touch the Sylphs wings. In a way the Sylph submits to James, and tries to catch the scarf, but in his ignorance and desire to catch her, he accidently allows the scarf to knock off her wings. James is distraught, and weeps, tenderly holding the dying creature, as she is carried to the heavens by the other Sylphs, James sees Effie and Gurn making their way to church, broken hearted he turns to Madge, who reminds him of her warning and prophercy, and he falls to the ground in death. Madge almost seems to say " You were warned" but it is not evil or Mallicous.
with scorn, just the result of an old crone, who used her spells to help a desparate young man.

#29 Anne

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Posted 30 August 2008 - 07:18 AM

I have seen Lacotte's La Sylphide on stage in Paris some years ago (with Isabella Ciaravola as the Sylph and a very young Mathieu Ganio as James), and and I noticed that in general his characters are less complex than the Bournonville ones. Lacottes witch is very much just a "standard witch", who would mostly leave you in peace if you don't come across her path or treat her badly like James does. One is wise to keep oneself out of her way. But the way she is characterized doesn't make you wondering who she "really" is or what her past might have been. She's probably born a witch and will stay like that for another 200 years. If she's offended she'll revenge herself and that's that, and in this case it's the end of James.
One thing I liked very much in the Paris version was the scene in the first act, where the Sylph mingles into the pas de deux of James and Effie, making it a pas de trois. Like a ghost she goes between them, only seen and felt by James. It is a real coup de theatre. I'm not sure if this pas de trois was in the original version by Taglioni or if it is an invention by Lacotte. But in any case it was a terrific moment.

#30 rg

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Posted 30 August 2008 - 08:48 AM

the interventional pas de trois is from the original Taglioni scheme so far as i can tell. it is a magical and mysterious in its way. the last act of LA BAYADERE originally included a similar pas de trois (or pas de deux a trois) when Nikiya comes phantomlike between Gamzatti and Solor in the last act as a Shade only Solor can see. the 'reconstruction' of this trio by Vikharev in his production of the ballet was one of its more memorable highlights: it's all shown in full light and yet one suspends disbelief and understands that only Solor can see this white-clad shadow; if mem. serves in this act Nikya's Shade is costumed with the sleeve/veils of the ensemble Shades from the Kingdom of the Shades scene.


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