Les Sylphides

Les Sylphides, originally choreographed by Michel Fokine to the music of Chopin, is the first non-narrative ballet. It was premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909 at Théâtre du Châtelet, France. At that period, before World War 1, was the beginning of “Belle Europe”, accompanied by a cultural boom, with new artistic movements, that French people began to enjoy the benefits of industrialization and modernization. Though the classical performing arts remained popular at that time, new entertainment forms like cinema and cabaret began to seize the audiences. The Ballet Russes Company, therefore, formulated several marketing strategies that could promote Fokine’s revolutionary ideas in Les Sylphides as selling points to captivate more French audiences and to win the market.
Michel Fokine was born in Saint Petersburg Russia in 1880. He was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School at the age of 9, in which he developed the idea of “classicism” in dance and made his performing debut in the ballet The Talisman under the direction of Marius Petipa. Along with being a talented dancer, Fokine also displayed a great talent in music and painting. During his student days, Fokine not only studied fine arts but also played several musical instruments such as piano, violin, and mandolin. It was his earlier experiences in exploring various art forms that he was able to explore his own view of artistic cohesion and to develop a philosophy of reform in his choreographic works.
In 1904, in his letter to the Directors of the Imperial Theatre, Fokine made a statement of the need for reform, which later became the basis for his famous 5 principles. In the letter, he stated, “…the ballet must have a complete unity of expression, a unity which is made up of a harmonious blending of the three elements-music, painting, and the plastique art…dancing should be interpretative…it should explain the spirit…” (Isabelle Fokine, Fokine Estate-Archive) While carrying this revolutionary idea, Fokine was first rejected by the theatre officials who judged him as being too radical. However, he didn’t stop insisting his ideas in creating his choreographic works such as Acis and Galatea (1905), The Dying Swan (1907) and Les Sylphides (1909). Finally, Fokine met with Serge Diaghilev who is all aflame with innovative ideas as Fokine. Diaghilev brought four of Fokine’s ballets to the first Ballet Russes season in 1909, Paris, in which Fokine showed his aesthetic values and principles in his works to the audiences.
At that time, enjoying the benefits of the second industrial revolution, France was celebrating a new-found stability with its thriving economies and its strength on the political scene. Rising disposable income, better living standards, and strong population growth resulted in a sharp rise in the demand for new forms of entertainment such as cinema and the infamous can-can dances from Moulin Rouge. Especially cinematographic entertainment, with famous works like A Trip to the Moon in 1902 produced by Georges Méliès company, quickly emerged as the dominant form of popular entertainment (Gerben Bakker 2007). In the past, classical ballet was a lavish event which designed solely for nobility. As an increased number of working class began to have freedom in choosing where to spend their leisure time from a series of categories of entertainments, ballet company started to face difficulties in seizing the audiences while competing with new entertainments in that era.
In order to win the market for Fokine’s works in the first Ballet Russes season in 1909, Paris, it’s time to take marketing strategies into play. In the old times, Marketing management was defined as the analysis, planning, implementation, and control of programs designed to create, build, and maintain beneficial exchange relationships with target audiences (Joanne S. Bernstein, 2014). However, even though Marketing is simply like a tool that would make an organization better off by maximizing exchanges with the targeted audience, marketing the performing arts is much more complicated. It’s not about intimidation or abandoning the artists’ artistic visions to cater to the various tastes of the audiences. Marketing, related to performing arts, is an effective technology for influencing customers’ behaviors and building emotional connections with them. Thus, an organization like the Ballet Russes Company should relate creatively, productively, and profitably to the marketplace, with the goal of creating and satisfying audiences within the parameters of the organization’s mission and artists’ artistic vision for achieving the marketer’s objectives.
The ballet Les Sylphides was, in fact, an edited and renamed work. It was originally named Chopiniana but changed to Les Sylphides as a marketing effort by Diaghilev and Fokine to recall for the Parisians the legendary Marie Taglioni, La Sylphide which had attracted French audiences in 1832. The ballet could be seen as an overture to the by-gone Romantic era, which inherits the several characteristics and qualities from that period. Similar to the settings in Petipa’s Giselle, which has the Willies wearing pure white tutus and pointe shoes and has the male character moving in fantasy, reveals the conflict between man and nature and the supernatural world. The ballet Les Sylphides has a theme about a young man walking at night and encountering a group of white slyphs. However, from Fokine’s perspective, the classical and virtuoso ballet like Giselle has emphasized too much on developing their characters within a storyline, while the music, costumes, and scenery each indifferently plays a solo in the performance. Fokine believed that his new form of ballets should have a strong communicative power to better express human emotions to reach the audiences. In his masterpiece, a one-act plotless ballet Les Sylphides, Fokine emphasized his ideas by incorporating all the elements together to contribute equally to create a unified whole. Therefore, rather than telling a story and further developing its plot, the ballet Les Sylphides is all about the dance itself with the music and other settings rather than its characters.
The movements along with music, lighting effects and costumes in the ballet Les Sylphides distinguish it from previous classical ballet productions. At the beginning of the dance, as the curtain opens, we could see the male character, “the Poet”, under the soft white lighting effect surrounded by Sylphs. Accompanied by Frederic Chopin’s orchestrated 8 pieces that throwback to the Romanic era, the Sylphs dance in a flutter of white tutus as the Poet grasps longingly but futility after them. Choreographically, movements in the dance is extremely difficult for dancer to express lightness and precision. Incorporating with the floating rhythms that touches the audiences’ emotion, the corps de ballet are woven in and out of exquisite patterns with little steps on pointe and airy jumps, while the lead dancers fly with effortlessness. Also with ballerinas’ arm movements that are simple and unaffected, the grouping of the dancers had a fluid, plastic quality, and above all, there was a flowing, lyrical line in the phrasing and movement (History of Les Sylphides). Moreover, dancers’ dainty and unique gestures give the ballet its signature Fokine look. While consistently implementing his famous aesthetic principles into his choreographic works, Fokine makes the ballet Les Sylphides no longer the slave of either the music or the scenic decoration and creates the equality among all art forms, which represents the main principle of “non-narrative” dance in the new era.
While back to the discussion of Marketing strategies, depending solely on renaming the dance is not enough for the Ballet Russes company to build an emotional connection with their targeted audience to influence their behaviors and thus to create effective and equal exchanges. For the arts marketers in the Ballet Russes, it is also quite essential for them to first understand how consumers think to efficiently plan and apply their strategies (Joanne S. Bernstein, 2014). While we don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. The attendees of live performing arts are the receivers of the experience that brought by performances. Therefore, the art managers need to focus on creating memorable experiences so that people will take away positive, even delighted, thoughts and feelings about their experiences at performances and develop lasting, fond memories. People choose whether to pursue or repeat an action or not based on their feelings and impressions that are packaged together in their memory. As the matter of fact, this would be an advantage for Fokine’s Les Sylphides in which it focuses mainly on its expression for ideas, sentiments, and emotions to get more in touch with its audiences.
Also, without the help of 21st century’s new technology social media marketing tools, implementing the marketing strategies for Fokine’s Les Sylphides would face various limitations. However, Mr. Serge Diaghilev with his Ballet Russes company developed several strategies that worked for him a century ago to cope with those difficulties and thus to bring the success to the Fokine’s work.
The first strategy he applied was to harness the power of influencers. Selecting 8 different pieces including Waltz from Romanic era Giant, one of the most renown composer and pianist in the world, Frederic Chopin, and getting Glazunov to orchestrate those pieces to create the ballet, Diaghilev and Fokine well understand the huge potential of Chopin, as an influencer, with an significant following who has sway over their audience’s opinions and behaviors. Thus, Chopin would be the most ideal image to promote Fokine’s work to the audience.
Furthermore, a strategy named creating a word of mouth would also be applicable. Carrying the same revolutionary idea of Fokine that the costumes design should complement the choreography, showing the more extended movements of dancers’ bodies, Diaghilev invited Alexandre Benois to design the costumes that would have the same innovative nature as within the world’s first non-narrative ballet, Les Sylphides. “It’s a softer silhouette ever used in creating the late 19th century’s ballet tutus that would flow with the dancer (Katherine Boyle, 2013).” All those radical innovations that delivered an exceptional experience to the audience could easily generate word-of-mouth for the performance. And therefore, Les Sylphides ultimately gained widespread popularity in large part, because of the word spread of its first tradition-breaking feature.
In conclusion, Michel Fokine, a talented choreographer, and dancer spent his earlier years in the Imperial Ballet School training in classical ballet techniques and developed his unique artistic vision through exploring various forms of art such as music and painting. Feeling the increased rigidness in classical ballet productions, Fokine developed a need for a complete reform in his choreography. He believed that a ballet should be a collaborative effort blending all the elements equally rather than a commissioning tune. Though his idea was first not welcomed by those in power at Mariinsky Theatre in Russia, Fokine finally met with Mr. Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballet Russes company, who brought Fokine’s works included Les Sylphides to the first “Saison Russe” in 1909, Paris. At that time, under the impact of the thrive in economies, development in new technologies and “culture boom” in France, the market of entertainments was getting more and more crowded, while new forms of entertainments began to compete with traditional live performance. Fokine’s work, “Les Sylphides,” with its innovational nature in which the dance shows an artistic unity of conception and an expression of mood, made a direct emotional connection to deliver a memorable experience to its audience. Along with other marketing strategies such as “harnessing influencer” and “creating word-of-mouth,” the Ballet Russes with les Sylphides is able to seize more targeted audiences, to win its market and thus has a profound influence that casts on the entire world of art, music and even culture until today.