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American Ballet Theatre - 'Sylvia'

Beauty in Simplicity

by Cecly Placenti

June 15, 2005 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

The curtain rises on a pastoral scene as nymphs and woodland creatures dance before the shrine of Eros, God of Love. Triumphant and Amazonian enters Sylvia, one of Diana’s huntress nymphs sworn to chastity, and her attendants, victorious from their hunt. Out of Greek mythology comes a simple story of love- a boy loves a girl, the girl is captured by evil men, the girl is then restored to the boy, and love conquers all.

Choreographed in 1952, "Sylvia" was Sir Frederick Ashton’s second full-length work and the Royal Ballet's most ambitious venture to date, conceived as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn and homage to the great three act ballets of Petipa. Yet because of Ashton’s reluctance towards recording his works for posterity, "Sylvia" was lost from the Royal Ballet’s repertory in the late 50’s.

"Sylvia," in this day and age, is not particularly virtuoustic -- an arena for the gods of dance at American Ballet Theatre to display their otherworldly feats. (Although the almost optical illusion of Danny Tidwell’s enormous jumps as Eros needs no special arena for its display.) "Sylvia" is a chance for these great dancers to display their artistry and subtle mastery of emotion. Having virtually no mime, the passion, love, rage, and defiance in this ballet are all shown through dance movement.

"Sylvia" hearkens back to a time in ballet when gymnastic achievements -- a half dozen pirouettes, greater than 180 degree split leaps, a tornado of rapidly devouring turns -- were not commonplace as they are today. The ballet possesses moments of quick and intricate footwork, delightful and surprising interplays with the magnificent Delibes score, and trademarks of Ashton’s style: plasticity and grace of the upper body, neatness of footwork, and confidence in simple movements executed with supreme elegance. In the bravura of modern dancers achievements style can easily be lost to tricks. Not only is the revival of "Sylvia" important achivally as a way of preserving history, but also as a reminder of the staggering beauty in simplicity.

For the ballerina, "Sylvia" offers a challenge as dramatic as it is technical. Sylvia, in the beginning, must portray strength and power. That hardness then softens to feminine vulnerability, lovesickness, distress, and seductiveness. The ballerina is onstage for most of Act I, all of Act II, and most of Act III. The choreography -- stunning and graceful -- is made for a woman’s body.

On this evening, Michele Wiles danced with the arrogance and infallibility of a righteous servant of the Goddess. Her dancing was exuberant and fearless, at times appropriately haughty and overbearing, and at others coy and infatuated. Her endless balances and strength -- no matter the speed or trajectory of her movement her legs were always right underneath her and rock solid- can be said of almost any other world class ballerina of her status. However, above and beyond that, Wiles was alive and engaging in her role bringing the personality of Sylvia to life. That is what sets dancers of such high caliber apart. Marcelo Gomes as her lover, Aminta, was powerfully masculine in his physicality and movement, yet at the same time graceful and soft on top of it. He is a warmly gracious dancer and a commanding performer.

While "Sylvia" had a very mixed reception in its day, audiences complaining that the story was too obscure and outdated to be interesting, it was wildly successful and was loved on its American tour. I do not think the story more obscure than "Swan Lake," for example, or particularly difficult to follow. What topic is more timeless than love? What subject more rewarding than love's endurance? "Sylvia" is worth seeing for its glimpse at the once lost work of a master, for the excitement of its dancing, for the display of the ballerina’s power and elegance, and for a refreshing and resonant reminder of how beautiful simplicity can be.


Edited by Staff.

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