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San Francisco Ballet - 'Sylvia'

by Rebecca Hirschman

May 9, 2004 matinee -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet’s production of Mark Morris’ “Sylvia” came to a close on Sunday afternoon. This version of “Sylvia” brought several firsts to the Opera House, including the first full-length ballet by Morris for a ballet company; the first full-length “Sylvia” to be shown on a U.S. stage; and initial principal roles for corps de ballet members Elizabeth Miner and Megan Low. There were also a few lasts, namely final performances for soloists Leslie Young and Sherri LeBlanc and corps de ballet member Caroline Loyola who are all retiring.

The curtain opened on a beautifully constructed set of lush green panels; tall grass; a shiny "pond"; a wonderfully painted scrim consisting of blooming flowers and greenery; and a prominent statue of Eros, the god of love and desire. Setting the tone for the afternoon, dryads (wood nymphs) in brown/green dresses leaped about, satyrs (male inhabitants of the woodlands) in furry animal leggings jumped with eagerness, and naiads (water nymphs) in dreamy pastel dresses with reflective head pieces fluttered about the stage in an amusingly flirtatious and overly drawn-out romp.

Guennadi Nedviguine, as the shepherd Aminta, showed incredible control and ability. He used his soft plié, large, effortless jumps; and mature quality to display purity and elegance throughout his portrayal. Megan Low, as Sylvia, danced with a nice blend of crisp attack, solid technique, and fresh joy. While Low does not possess ultra-bendy limbs or unusual tricks, she emoted an effervescent energy combined with a great sense of comic timing throughout her dancing. But, there were times when she seemed lost and overwhelmed.

In Act II, Orion courted Sylvia in his expansive cave dwelling, complete with a sliding boulder door and luminescent rock-like panels. With just enough facial hair, brown textured pants, and a fitted shirt, he looked like the menacing hunter he was supposed to be. As Orion, Pierre-François Vilanoba presented a dark contrast to Nedviguine’s Aminta. Vilanoba’s Orion was sinister and lonely, and with only 8 dim-witted male slaves to keep him company, who wouldn’t be? Orion’s slaves received the royal treatment, with impressive yet hideous make-up and brown sack-like pants. Their movements were distorted and inane while also entertaining and enjoyable.

The final act used stark white columns, stairs, beams, and pillars erected for Diana, Bacchus, and Eros to portray a planned spiritual gathering. Ruben Martin and Garen Scribner danced the roles of the Heralds. Scribner, an apprentice, was a good match for Martin’s smooth and articulate dancing. Muriel Maffre portrayed a regal Diana. Dressed in silver, she was a cool contrast to James Sofranko’s golden boy Eros. While Sofranko’s costumes and choreography were a tad kooky, he shined as the mythological fairy godfather to Sylvia and Aminta, performing Eros and his slew of aliases (Sorcerer and Pirate) with charm and abandon. The orchestra sounded superb, and conductor Anthony Mogrelia should be commended for a wonderful performance.

Morris’ “Sylvia” is not traditional. But, what is traditional about Mark Morris? Each set of characters is distinctive and developed. The villagers’ dance is reminiscent of folk dance, while the slaves move in a slouched and somewhat miserable manner. Sylvia embodies depth, leadership, and vulnerability. And, while Aminta’s development seems limited internally, he acts as a catalyst for Sylvia’s personal growth. While lengthy, Morris’ “Sylvia” tells an old story in a new way. Using striking sets, innovative and often modern-based movements, and pantomime, Morris has produced an intriguing ballet. “Sylvia” is not scheduled for the company's 2005 season, but I hope that it returns to the repertory soon. It deserves to be shown again.

Edited by Jeff.

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