Farewell to the Sylph

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The Italian prima ballerina Carla Fracci, who died at age 84 on May 27, 2021, was one of the pre-eminent interpreters of the Romantic repertory in the latter half of the 20th century.  Indeed, Anton Dolin, narrating the 1982 film A Portrait of Giselle (which can be viewed here), included Fracci as one of eight great Giselles of that century, putting her in company with the likes of Olga Spessivtseva, Yvette Chauviré, and Alicia Markova (all whom Dolin had partnered in Giselle; so he knew a thing or two about what makes for a great interpreter of this role).  Dolin had also coached Fracci for her Giselle debut, her performance being acclaimed from that time forth.

I was fortunate to have once seen Fracci in Giselle.  That was in New York, at the Metropolitan Opera, around 1980 or so, with Rudolf Nuryev as her partner.  Fracci was in her 40s by then, not a young age for a ballerina, but I wasn’t aware of such watching her.  She possessed a marvelous grace and delicacy, and yet a dramatic immediacy in the part.  In her mad scene she didn’t go crazy and release all her hair in a wild swing.  Instead, she let one long, dark lock come loose and stray across her pale face; it looked, as I recall one critic describing it, like a crack in porcelain—as if Giselle was shattering, slowly, before our eyes.

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Two moments from that night still stand out vividly in my (admittedly not young) memory.  One was in an early scene, when Giselle, shyly encountering Albrecht/Loys, mimes that she must return to her cottage to complete some sewing.  Other dancers I’ve seen in Giselle will, at this moment, mime a sewing motion, a back-and-forth or up-and-down seesawing, as of a needle through fabric.  What Fracci did instead was to mime the motion of a spinning wheel.  I mean, she created an entire spinning wheel onstage, and, by golly, you saw that entire spinning wheel.  The other moment was during her final curtain calls, when fans from the top balcony showered her with white flower petals.  It was one of those (small-r) romantic gestures that could have come from the 19th century:  When balletomanes would pull a ballerina’s carriage through the streets, or cook and consume her dancing slipper, so stirred were they by the magic of her dance.

Something of that 19th-century Romantic magic still clung to Fracci herself, in her manner and stage presence, in her very physical being.  In his documentary Portrait, Dolin saw Fracci as resurrecting the style of three great Italian Romantic ballerinas—Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito, and Carlotta Grisi (the original Giselle).  And Fracci had that ‘look’ of the Romantic-era dancer, as seen in that earlier century’s lithographs—the huge, dark, wistful eyes; the pale face contrasted with smooth dark hair, which seemed painted onto a small oval head; the slim, elongated arms; and the wide, sloping shoulders narrowing to a wasp-like waist.  Even her pronounced widow’s peak lent her face an otherworldly air.  Fracci’s dancing also evoked an earlier time—restrained, lyrical, and, above all, light and airy.  It had that fabled effect, as rhapsodized by 19th-century ballet critics and fans, of the dancer’s feet seeming to barely touch the ground, as if gravity had lost its claim on her body.

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With Fracci, that effect was no fable.  You can witness it in this October 1962 clip (courtesy of the Sam Francis YouTube channel) of her in La Sylphide (the Bournonville version), performed with Erik Bruhn, at the beginning of their famous partnership.  As staged here (I’m assuming it was done by Bruhn, though IMDB lists James Starbuck as choreographer), the segment excerpts two significant moments from the second act:  The ‘Scene de la Sylphide,’ during which James dances ecstatically with the Sylph and her corps in the woods; and the Sylph’s death, when James wraps her in the poisoned scarf.  The segment originally appeared on the Bell Telephone Hour, a weekly hour-long TV program that focused on the classical performing arts (opera, concert, ballet, Broadway).  Watching it, all I can say is that there really was a TV Golden Age:

Note how this segment was filmed.  Except for a dissolve at the beginning (from a closeup of Bruhn’s face to Fracci’s entrance), it’s done on one take, the camera unobtrusively moving in to and out from the dancers, with no distracting, or self-indulgent camera angles, cuts, or edits.  The music is also in correct tempi, allowing the dancers to keep dancing, with no stretched-out breaks in phrasing.  We get to see the dance as whole as possible, as done within the limits of a small, two-dimensional screen.  The presentation is modest in scale (that allotted studio space is most modest indeed), but it’s done with respect for the dance.  And while no screen, large or small, can recreate the live theatrical experience, we get some sense not only how Fracci, Bruhn, and the eight-member corps move and perform in relation to each other, but of Sylphide’s choreographic style—bright and fleet, with the Bournonville emphasis on a calm torso and swift, sharp feet.  No, it’s not perfect, but I ain’t complaining.  I’ll take what I can get.

Especially since we get to view the young Fracci (then in her mid-20s) in her other great signature role, that of Bournonville’s Sylphide.  Fracci is aware of the role’s heritage; her costuming, with its large, airy wings, evokes not only Lucille Grahn, Bournonville’s Sylph, but the original Sylph herself, Marie Taglioni, even to the pearl choker round her neck and the blue ribbon at her waist.  Fracci’s Sylph here is light and happy, the merest touch of gravity in her demeanor.  She’s the Sylph like a child, absorbed in her happiness, dancing for James and for herself, heedless of anything but the present moment.  Even as she dies, dropping the (stolen) wedding ring into James’s hand, she smiles, as if not quite comprehending what’s happening to her, her naïve love for James overriding all else.

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And there’s Fracci’s formidable technique.  Her feet really do just brush the floor, she has such control and strength in instep and ankle, knee and thigh, so that her landings are weightless, her body lifting up as she comes down.  But if there’s one instant in her dance that, for me, evokes the whole ethos of the Romantic era, it’s that great moment when the Sylph bounds across the stage in a diagonal; when Fracci, dipping and turning, curls her working leg in and then flicks it out in simultaneous opposition to her bending and curving upper body.  You get a breathless sense of how classical dance enables the dancer to move the body in space so as to occupy it fully, allowing it to expand in dimension and time, as if the air itself was supporting the torso in its whirling motion—that moment when, to paraphrase Yeats’s famous phrase, we know not the dancer from the dance.  And how supremely apt is such a moment in this ballet’s context:  For wouldn’t air be that kind of cushion for the Sylph, her very nature made of that element?  It’s that nature’s essence that Fracci gives us.

A number of videos and films exist, on tape, DVD, and on Youtube, of Fracci dancing, from throughout her career, in different ballets.  (You can watch a 1969 film of Fracci and Bruhn in an American Ballet Theatre staging of Giselle here; it was shot not as a live performance but in a studio, with ‘cinematic’ effects.  It’s not perfect, by any means, but you gotta take what you can get.)  At least the advantage of film over lithographs is we see the dancer in motion (the whole point of dance, yes?), something of her dancing aspect preserved, inadequate though it may be.  Although Fracci’s ultimate quality as a dancer could exist only in the moment of performance, in her flesh and blood, and in her time and space, before our eyes.  It’s a moment as evanescent as the Sylph herself, existing only as Fracci, and we, would breathe the air in which the Sylph lives.

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I’m grateful for having that one moment, of seeing Fracci live before my own eyes, some forty years ago.  Yet I know that memories fade as quickly as air and time, as dance itself.  Therefore I’m also grateful that we do have a filmed record of Fracci dancing, no matter how incomplete and unsatisfactory it may be in terms of dance’s essence.  At least something of her art is preserved in as permanent a state as we now have.  And no, it’s by no means perfect.  But hey, let’s take what we can get.

Carla Fracci in La Sylphide, 1967. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Bonus Clip:  Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn performed La Sylphide one more time on TV, some twenty years after their Bell Telephone Hour appearance, in a live broadcast of a Metropolitan Opera gala.  The tenderness and rapport of their famous partnership are certainly evoked here:

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