Jewel of a "Sylvia"
Each year in its Metropolitan Opera House season, American Ballet Theatre presents its stars as Cartier might display gemstones arranged in opulent settings. There are the “Swan Lakes” and “Giselles,” and perhaps a “Raymonda” or “Corsaire,” to show off the company’s glittering array of dancers. A range of casts is offered in each ballet for enthusiasts to see and compare, although favorites are apt to be as personal as are preferences for diamonds, sapphires or rubies.
Among the evening-length works, Frederick Ashton’s “Sylvia” is being featured this season. The ballet was choreographed in 1952 and nearly lost until Christopher Newton revived it last year for the Royal Ballet. It has now come to ABT, and we can all be grateful. This is a ballet that is a jewel in its own right, not only providing a brilliant setting for dancers but offering many beauties of its own.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the ballet is a classical pastorale involving Sylvia, a nymph of Diana who spurns the love of the shepherd Aminta; is captured by an evil hunter, Orion; and is restored to Aminta by Eros, who has pierced Sylvia with an arrow of love. The story is unnecessarily complicated with numerous incidental details, but since it allowed Delibes to produce a lovely score, that more than makes up for any defects in the plot.
Ashton made many works for Margot Fonteyn, but few, with the exception of “Ondine,” are so indelibly marked by her. The ballet came at a time when Fonteyn was at the height of her powers, and no other role Ashton created for her demanded such a range of acting and probably none was more technically demanding; the role was crafted to emphasize every one of Fonteyn’s strengths. Few ballerinas possess Fonteyn’s unusual combination of imperiousness, sensuality and vulnerability, and that is what the role requires. It also demands a technique that can make petit allegro look effortless and that at the same time can fill out larger movement to give the dance the breadth and flow it needs. These challenges were taken up by Michele Wiles on Monday and by Gillian Murphy on Tuesday.
Wiles, the talented young soloist who is being seen in a number of starring roles during the current season, was unlucky in her debut performance. A combination of factors, including a bad fall, resulted in an evening that lacked authority and clarity. To this viewer, Wiles seemed unready for the role, in the sense of being under-rehearsed, and it may be that in the long-run the choreography is not altogether a good fit for her. Wiles is tall and reads large on the stage. This gives her movement amplitude and to it she adds a graciousness of personality. But here she appeared a little ungainly and she had trouble defining the steps. Her dancing felt short and abrupt and was at the same time blurred, especially in the first act. She was certainly not helped by a terrible bit of miscasting in Gennadi Saveliev as Orion. It is difficult to understand why a dancer of his physical stature was selected for the villain to Wiles’ Sylvia. There was nothing wrong with Saveliev’s interpretation, but not only did he look ineffective beside Wiles, who is taller than he is on pointe, he fell with her as he carried her off during the abduction scene. Both of them crashed to the stage as the audience gasped. Fortunately they reappeared, unhurt, in the second act. But the entire cast seemed shaken by the event and another dancer slipped and fell during the third act. Altogether, it was not the happiest of performances. The one bright spot was Marcelo Gomes as Aminta, the shepherd. He had an open earnestness that was charming, and he danced his solo in Act Three with unaffected purity.
On Tuesday evening Gillian Murphy and Maxim Beloserkovsky repeated the leading roles they had danced on June 3, and the ballet took on a much more lucid aspect. Murphy, with her athleticism and commanding presence, would not seem ideally suited to Sylvia, but she made the role her own. The first act, in which she, as the confident huntress, scoffs at Aminta’s love for her, was well within her range. It was the second act that should have caused problems, when she is the captive of Orion and must show her powerlessness. She has none of Fonteyn’s doe-eyed vulnerability and she didn’t aim for it. Instead she took another tack. Her tears were not those of helplessness but of frustration at her inability to escape Orion’s clutches. She quickly rallied, devising a plan to out-wit him. All of this was in keeping with the image of a strong woman. When at last she calls on Eros for help, it is as a last resort and she asks with dignity. Her triumph, culminating in the third act pas de deux, reasserts her strength as well as revealing her ability to love.
Murphy, unlike Wiles, was given two men who supported her fully. Beloserkovsky may have been more aristocrat than shepherd in appearance, but by the end of the ballet he was convincing as a young man in love. Marcelo Gomes played the villain this time around and was wonderfully nasty, giving an indication of his own versatility as an actor.
As for the production as a whole, many people appear to like the designs originally created by Robin and Christopher Ironside, but I found them, as in so many Royal Ballet productions, overly fussy. Ashton’s penchant for props is also a bit out-of-hand. There are enough garlands and rakes, stuffed animals and wands, not to mention the odd torch and a plethora of bows and arrows, for six ballets.
Ashton was never satisfied with the third act of “Sylvia”; he did not like some of the dances nor the fact that there was no action until the final moments when Diana appears, kills Orion, separates the lovers, and then relents once Eros points out to her that she, too, had once loved a young man. While it is true that the final act does not make a perfect arc of story-telling, this can easily be forgiven for the feast of inventive choreography throughout the ballet, including those very third-act dances. When so many ballets today have little to recommend them, it is a happy occasion to discover one with so much beauty and to realize that had it not been rescued at this moment, it would probably have been lost for ever. “Sylvia” is a welcome addition to the active repertory and it is to be hoped that it will now enjoy a permanent place there.