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American Ballet Theatre - 'Sylvia'

by Jerry Hochman

June 3 and 4 evening, 2005 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

The music by Leo Delibes is memorable. The sets are stunning. The lighting is enlightening. The performances are brilliant. Even the orchestra sounds great. And the choreographer is Sir Frederick Ashton. So why isn’t “Sylvia,” which had its U.S. premiere with American Ballet Theatre on June 3, 2005, the unqualified triumph it should be? Why isn’t it another “La Fille Mal Gardee,” “Cinderella,” “Two Pigeons,” or “The Dream”? Perhaps because it was intended as a garland to Ashton’s muse, Margot Fonteyn, and nearly all of the good stuff belongs to her. Perhaps because any production of “Sylvia,” as has been said, is jinxed. Or perhaps Ashton simply couldn’t decide whether he was doing a pastiche, an homage, or a new classic. Regardless of its faults, however, it is a fun ballet to watch, and even less than perfect Ashton is better than a less than perfect ballet choreographed by almost anyone else.

“Sylvia” was first staged by Ashton in 1952. It is a simple story – boy loves amazon-like huntress, huntress kills boy, god kills huntress, huntress doesn’t die, boy doesn’t die, huntress decides she loves boy after all, huntress is abducted by evil man from the wrong side of the forest, huntress seduces evil man while force-feeding him wine, god rescues huntress, huntress is reunited with boy, the end. And perhaps therein lies part of the problem: It is a busy ballet. Originally a full three acts, Ashton felt it was too long, tinkered with it, and eventually reduced it to one act which, apparently, was not successful. “Sylvia” then suffered the same fate as its choreographic predecessors that attempted to harness the Delibes score – it died. The present revival, lovingly and apparently faithfully resurrected and staged by Christopher Newton, who danced in the original production, unfortunately revives the ballets flaws as well as its virtues.

A second viewing permitted me to modify my overall first impression from opening night that the piece was a choreographic hodgepodge. Much of it still appears to be. But Act I, which takes place in a dreamily beautiful forest glade is often wonderful (the original designs by Robin and Christopher Ironside have been gloriously revived, with additional sets by Peter Farmer). The various naiads, dryads, fauns and sylvans move gently and lyrically, a style Ashton does so well.

Aminta, a shepherd boy, appears similarly gentle, and the movement that Ashton gives him is almost effeminate. When Sylvia appears, accompanied by her Attendants, the action becomes militaristic, and the movement imperious. Sylvia is strong, commanding, and almost masculine. She thrusts her bow into the air repeatedly, as if hailing herself or saluting her unseen mentor, Diana. Although she is only one of Diana’s nymphs, she is the leader of the hunt-pack, and clearly is to the amazon born. Up to this point, the Ashton choreography is dazzling, in keeping with the dazzling Delibes score. And then things start to go a bit off track.

Amid choreographic quotes from "Giselle," the hiding Aminta (who has fallen for Sylvia), is found by Sylvia’s Wilis, er, Attendants, and then is slain with an arrow by the uncaring Sylvia (who apparently was really aiming at the statue of Eros). In response, the god Eros, who has been watching the developments stonefaced from his temple perch, shoots Sylvia with his arrow. Miraculously, however, and to her own surprise, Sylvia survives. Although we are told, by the program, that Eros’s arrow has caused Sylvia to fall in love with Aminta, we see no such reaction in Sylvia’s face or gesture. Sylvia simply reenters the stage later suddenly a nymph in love. Odd.
More odd is what Ashton does with Eros. After all attempts to revive Aminta fail, and after Sylvia is abducted by the lecherous Orion (who is a comic-book villain, with his – or Ashton’s -- tongue firmly planted in his cheek), Eros appears as a hooded and caped Madge-like figure, and, after some comic-relief pitter patter around Aminta’s body, revives Aminta with flower nectar. Eros then removes his cape, resumes his position of honor in his temple, and commands Aminta to rescue Sylvia as he (Eros) stands like a stone statue clad only in a gigantic fig leaf. So, is “Sylvia” a serio-fantasy, a serio-comedy, or is it an overly long joke?

The confusion, and loose ends in the libretto, continue in Act II. Except for the choreography for Sylvia and lascivious counterpoint by Orion, this scene is simply not fully realized. In Orion’s Acadian den, where she has been taken to become Orion’s mate, Sylvia is at first lovesick and heartbroken over her separation from Aminta. In the course of Orion’s attempt to get Sylvia to loosen up, his slaves dance in an oriental style, like Chinamen. Chinamen? In Acadia? Or are Orion’s slaves merely strange people from a strange place who move strangely? Whatever the reason Ashton may have had, the choreography looks out of place and doesn’t work. Then Sylvia hatches a scheme to get Orion and his minions so drunk that they pass out and she can escape. She gets them drunk as she skillfully seduces them, but then realizes that she’s stuck in Orion’s grotto with no way to escape the Acadian Alcatraz. Didn’t she know she couldn’t escape? What was the point of getting them drunk if she couldn't get out on her own? Eros, fairy godfather that he is, comes to Sylvia’s rescue (and shows her a vision of her beloved Aminta, like Siegfried seeing a vision of Odette or Florimund seeing a vision of Aurora). But didn’t Eros command Aminta to rescue Sylvia? Why didn’t Eros at least take Aminta with him so Aminta could have gotten credit for rescuing her (perhaps with a kiss to Aurora’s cheek)? Is Eros a control freak?

And, then there’s Act III. The classic pas de deux between Aminta and Sylvia is superbly done, particularly (no surprise) the choreography for Sylvia. But, apparently, little else mattered. The choreography for the “second leads” is weak. The goats move like they were lifted practically intact from the cats in “Sleeping Beauty.” And the celebration for Bacchus that precedes Sylvia’s reunion with Aminta is, perhaps unintentionally, hilarious. The peasant celebrants move like aliens from another planet imagining what it might be like to be intoxicated. It just looks silly and forced. And then Diana suddenly appears out of nowhere furious that her protégé would throw it all away for a man (and a poor shepherd to boot), and puts the cabosh on Sylvia and Aminta’s wedding -- until Eros reminds her that she, too, once was a lapsed virgin.

“Sylvia” clearly is top-heavy, with Act I dominating the action and Sylvia dominating the piece. And Ashton knew it. His remedy was to try to condense “Sylvia,” but it might have been better if he had attempted to strengthen the choreography for the other dancers so that the overall performance was more balanced and the story didn't have so many loose ends. The ABT audience also seemed to know that "Sylvia" was not in the same league as Ashton's many triumphs. Although the audience response both nights was favorable, and eventually the orchestra audience gave the dancers the almost obligatory (and in this case deserved) standing ovations, there was no immediate audience celebration at seeing a masterwork as there had been last year with "The Two Pigeons."

The two Sylvias I saw were superb. Gillian Murphy danced Sylvia as if possessed. She was strong, she was imperious, she was sensual (she should transfer some of that sensuality to her portrayal of Odile), she was lyrical, she was everything she needed to be. And as a temptress the fact that Murphy has curves where they’re supposed to be helps too: Poor Orion never had a chance. In a word, Murphy was phenomenal. Paloma Herrera, who portrayed Sylvia on June 4, was a kinder, gentler Sylvia, and she had to work at being imperious. She danced the role very well, but didn’t quite have the intensity of Murphy. At Saturday’s performance Angel Corella was able to overcome Ashton’s concept of the lowly shepherd, and made him more forceful and more aggressive. Maxim Beloserkovsky was Murphy’s Aminta. He danced well, as usual, but appeared unable to take the role to another level, as Corella had. The two Eroses were a study in contrasts. Herman Cornejo, who portrayed Eros on Friday, took to being a god like a duck to water. He was the Arnold of Eroses. Craig Salstein, Saturday’s Eros, was more like the god next door. Instead of being in command, he looked bewildered. But his dancing, such as it was with the limited opportunities Ashton provided, was top notch – particularly his comic turn as the Madge-like witch. Both Marcelo Gomes on Friday and Jesus Pastor on Saturday were excellent Orions, each one vamping up a storm. And Sarah Lane and Carlos Lopez, at both performances, did outstanding work as the cat-like goats.

There are reasons why a ballet gets lost. Sometimes it’s better that way. But this is Ashton, and, despite my criticisms, we are enriched by having it back in the repertoire. It will be repeated later this season, and I’m sure in seasons to come.

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