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San Francisco Ballet - 'Sylvia'

by Toba Singer

May 1, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

The Greco-Roman labyrinthine tale, "Sylvia," was made into a play by Renaissance playwright Torquato Tasso, and Leo Délibes embraced it as a vehicle for his splendid scoring in the latter half of the 19th century. Helgi Tomasson offered Mark Morris a carte blanche to create a full-length work for San Francisco Ballet. Morris picked up the cudgels, and what emerges is a "Thoroughly Modern Sylvia" that only Morris could have birthed.

The title role's character is part muse, coquette, wood nymph, huntress, quarry, rock climber, sommelière, and dancehall queen. Even in the most thickly confected of story ballets, it is rare to find a role containing as many encrypted personae as does Sylvia. By contrast, her admirer, Aminta, is rather one-dimensional: he knows what he wants, faces a few obstacles in getting it, but none of them change his basic character -- save for a few plot swivels that have him living one moment, dead the next, and then living once more. The challenge is to steer clear of what would seem like an inevitably lopsided relationship between Sylvia and Aminta, because if Sylvia can't show us her octahedron personality, we will have a ballet with lots of heat but no solar panels.

What keeps lopsidedness at bay is, on the one hand, Morris' penchant for tongue in cheek pageantry and on the other, a less encumbered humor that anachronistically uses the classical ambit to lampoon modern notions of romantic love. Vanessa Zahorian makes an earnest effort here, as does her partner, Joan Boada. She more than touches all the bases dramatically, and he is as dashing a Greco-Roman victim of Eros as anyone could hope for. The problem is that there's little chemistry between them. There isn't even any alchemy between the two of them and the audience.

Not so for Ruben Martín and Garen Scribner. As The Heralds who open Act III, they give possibly the best performance of the evening. Their duet is clean, and their regal tempi is overtly gracious. This brief segment spirits us from the rural idiocy of the forest to the democratic grandeur of the rising City-State. Here, the white-draped, beamingly confident duo offer an unself-conscious guided tour of their alabaster forum. Oddly enough, A River Runs Through It that looks devilishly like a Venetian canal, replete with a gliding gondola full of tipsy, or at least quirky, passengers.

These Morrisinsanian devices open a window on the contradictions that attend the birth of enlightenment and scientific triumph. In Act II, the Romanesque slaves, in their rag-tag formation, stagger into a credible coryphée and play gamely against Sylvia's regal poses. We enjoy them and her, as she carefully considers, arms akimbo, what to do with her power. Mind made up, she dispatches them, one after the other with an outstretched arm that ends in a pointed finger, as if to say, "You -- out! You, OUT! And you too, OUT!" -- much in the mood of a thoroughly ticked-off ballet repitrice.

The costumes and scenery are like the music -- lush and gorgeous. In Act I, the eye is drawn to a spray of red wildflowers centered in a bosque-rimmed clearing. The red is somewhat muted and the woodsy colors even more so. The villagers arrive costumed in all the colors of the woods, except several shades more primary on the chromatic scale, and a wonderful mélange and richness is effected by the marriage of set with costumes.

The dancing overall is arduous but spirited, and the work is longer than it needs to be. Possibly owing to the length and need to rehearse several casts, details like prop-handling of veils, weapons, and so forth, look a little crude and in need of cleaning.

"Sylvia" is certainly a visual, musical, comedic, and dramatic charmer. With some editing, polishing, coaching, and the seasoning of a few more times out, "Sylvia" could be less checkered and more coherent of a work, offering production values that would fulfill its promise.


Edited by Lori Ibay

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