and a Goddess
American Ballet Theatre has been conscientiously acquiring classical or classically-based repertory to feature its ballerinas, and its new production of Frederick Ashton’s “Sylvia,” or a version of it, makes a wise, lovely, and stylish showcase for male and female dancers throughout the ranks. At the opening night Met performance, much of the audience (at least on the orchestra level) was smitten by first intermission, and, at the end of the two hours, it gave Gillian Murphy a well-earned standing ovation for her rendering of Sylvia, the stern huntress, who is eventually weaned away from her vows as a follower of the chaste goddess, Diana, by her love for a shepherd, Aminta (danced at this performance by Maxim Belotserkovsky); in the middle of her transformation, she is kidnapped by “the robber Khan” Orion, whom she distracts from his bedroom plans by getting him drunk and then impersonating several varieties of seductress. (Orion seems to be Franz and Dr. Coppelius rolled into one.) The ballet ends with her wedding to Aminta, which, curiously, in the manner of some horror movies that reserve one last scare for the end, after you think the protagonists are safe, is momentarily postponed by an infuriated Diana, who forbids the wedding until her nemesis, the god Eros (performed with statuesque nobility and charm at ABT by Herman Cornejo), causes Diana to have a vision of her own passion for Endymion, some time in the remote past. Aminta is more passive a hero than Prince Désiré, and Eros’s vision to Diana works imagistically—it’s located in the sky—yet makes little sense narratively without a program note.
One doesn’t go to “Sylvia” for the story, but rather for the spectacle—ABT has reproduced the beguiling neoclassical fantasies of the Ashton’s designers Robin and Christopher Ironsides, with some additional designs by Peter Farmer—and for the dancemaking, which includes some of the loveliest ensemble dances that Ashton ever devised, including a scene for Sylvia and her sister nymphs that rivals the scene for Titania and her attendants in Balanchine’s “Midsummer.” There is a geometric dance with faceting for a group that is full of inspired configurations, rather like some passages for the Seasons from Ashton’s “Cinderella,” from 1948. And the choreography for Sylvia, herself, is a marvel of step-invention, including the dance to the “Pizzicato” variation, which treats the music with a Watteau-like delicacy so that one hears it as if for the first time. Furthermore, following the Bolshoi’s London appearance in 1956, Ashton added some athletic tosses for Sylvia and Amitas that must have shown Fonteyn in a new way, indeed. Delibes was a great proponent of Wagner, and Ashton picks that up in his choreographic leitmotivs as well, in particular, in the changes he rings on first arabesque—the quintessential pose for Fonteyn, with her invisible kneecaps making heavenly lines. By the end of the ballet, Sylvia’s heart may be warmer, but the last movement before the curtain descends finds her taking an arabesque that is all arrows: a nymph of Diana is going to be an interesting marriage partner. (Balanchine also alludes to Delibes’ Wagnerism in the “War and Discord” pas de deux he made for his and Danilova’s “Coppélia,” where spears and horned helmets, rather than arrows, serve as the models for the geometric imagery.)
Still, at the Met some dancegoers weren’t quite enthusiastic about the ballet, itself: one who spoke with me explained that she found it cold, and that she couldn’t appreciate the choreography on an emotional level, much as she enjoyed its formal qualities. Although my own response was with the standees, who comprised the vast majority of the audience, I report this one because the history of “Sylvia”’s reception among British audiences, especially, includes similar reactions, even among fans of Margot Fonteyn, the original executant of the title role and the dancer for whom the entire ballet was constructed as a vehicle and homage. During the 1950’s and 60’s, Ashton kept cutting “Sylvia,” until it was finally retired from the Royal’s rep as a one-act ballet. The work doesn’t seem to have been notated in any of its versions; and although some casts were filmed, the stager Christopher Newton has explained that the films aren’t very helpful. Newton brought the two-act version back to the Royal last year for the centenary celebrations of Ashton’s birth, and it is that production ABT is now showing us.
Ashton’s two-act “Sylvia” is a huge company effort, with lots of very useful solo roles. At the Met, Monique Meunier (stepping in for an injured Veronika Part) made a sumptuous Terpsichore to Eric Underwood’s Apollo; and it was a pleasure to see Michele Wiles dancing with David Hallberg, recently returned to performing from injury (as Ceres and Jason). Maria Riccetto and Jesus Pastor made an effective Persephone and Pluto, which is essentially another version of “Beauty”’s “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.” Carmen Corella’s Diana was effectively enraged. And Marcelo Gomes got his own ovation for his whole-body portrayal of the dread and then drunken Orion. But of all these lovely dancers, it was Sarah Lane and Carlos Lopez as two goats, who threatened to steal the show with their exacting performance of finicky, Ashtonian animal steps, many of them in profile. As for Murphy, this is the perfect role for her big, accurate technique and her temperament, which, appropriate to a nymph of Diana, tends to be reserved. It’s not really right for her face, which, though beautiful, is not radiant—an important factor for much of the character’s port de bras, which keeps pulling off invisible layers to reveal what was Fonteyn’s intoxicating physical appearance. On the other hand, Fonteyn worked very hard on her technique, but she could never pull off Murphy’s dance effects.