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Royal Ballet - 'Sylvia'

Embracing Ashton

by Julia Skene-Wenzel

November 24, 2004 – Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Ballet is one of England’s finest trademarks and the birthplace of a distinctly British style. Defined by discreet emotions and a pure technique, it allows dancers to portray characters and storylines without relying on elaborate mime. Frederick Ashton, founder choreographer of the Royal Ballet, was the major force in the development of these characteristics. This year marks his 100 anniversary and the Royal Ballet pays tribute to his legacy with a splendid Ashton season, featuring amongst others “A Wedding Bouquet”, “Cinderella”, “La Fille mal gardée” and the revived and eagerly awaited full-length production of “Sylvia”.

Troubled by a convoluted plot, “Sylvia” received a mixed reaction at its opening in 1952. It was subsequently shortened to a one act ballet and finally discarded in 1965. Shortly before his death, Ashton expressed his wish to rework “Sylvia” as a three act ballet. Honouring his aspiration, Christopher Newton, a former dancer and ballet master under Ashton and artistic coordinator of the company until 2001, took up the challenge to reconstruct the production. He recreated the ballet with the help of photographs, small recordings and his own memory, taking a few dramatic but not choreographic liberties. The finished product has been reshaped to follow a clearer and more coherent narrative:

Shepherd Aminta is in love with nymph Sylvia, who accidentally kills him when trying to shoot Eros. Eros enraged by her actions, shoots an arrow into her heart, resulting in her falling in love with the dying Aminta. The grieving Sylvia is kidnapped by the evil hunter Orion, but manages to escape. Aminta is brought back to life by Eros and after a dramatic showdown with Diana, the Goddess of Chastity, the lovers are united to live happily ever after.

Paying homage to the 19th century ballet, this romantic plot is set to the expressive score of Leo Delibes, which sweeps the story through its highs and lows. Ashton’s choreography captures every nuance of its texture and paints his vision across the stage in ever changing formations. Low arabesques lead into multiple pirouettes while the upper body breaks out of traditional ballet positions and softens into fluid patterns. The corps is freed from the margins and placed at centre stage, which results in some stunning choreographic phrases and a confident performance by the whole ensemble.

The principals are confronted with some difficult and daunting solos. Ashton created Sylvia as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn. Her physique, style and technical abilities were very different from the highly athletic ballerinas of today. French but Spanish trained Zenaida Yanowsky found herself faced with an unfamiliar style and an incredibly fast pace for her long limbs. However, rather than making the choreography fit her requirements, she confirmed that she “tried to adapt her body into the choreography” and she mostly succeeds. Her jumps are breathtaking and her turns perfectly in time. However, in the passages that rely on quick and neat footwork, she often struggles to keep up with Ashton’s steps and the music.

This is also the case for David Makhateli, whose Aminta is calm and composed through the airy, opening passages. His elevation is breathtaking and his performance self-assured, but at times he also fails to meet the required speed, which results in a disappointing lack of clarity. Gary Avis gives a well-rounded performance as Orion, commanding the stage throughout and Martin Harvey gives a spirited performance as Eros. Overall, Ashton’s choreography was embraced with vigour and passion even if parts of it just did not sit with the dancers.

In today’s global community, the national versus the international – tradition versus advancement – are issues that affect every aspect of modern life. Ashton’s centenary celebrations and the revival of “Sylvia” reflect the changes the world has undergone. British ballet might not exist in its undiluted form anymore, but it still carries the strength that has risen from its firm foundation. “Sylvia” marks an important part of British dance history and as such is a treasure to be added to the current repertoire. It will bring dancers of the Royal Ballet closer to Ashton’s style and will enrich their understanding of heritage. Their ability to dive back into the requirements of this past era will no doubt increase in future season.

Edited by Jeff.

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