While we keep an eye on the ongoing debate about ballet “trying to find a place in our inattentive and increasingly lowbrow culture”, we wonder what kind of future lies in store for ballets that are neither masterpieces, nor flops? Case in point, 1952′s Sylvia, which Frederick Ashton himself had reconfigured in the sixties as a one-act piece. In 2004 the complete ballet returned to the Royal Ballet repertory as reconstructed by Christopher Newton. Sylvia was the only full-length Ashton facing the threat of extinction (while so many of his one-act works were forever lost) and its restoration presented a chance to salvage a piece of historical interest – it had been made to showcase the artistry of their Prima Ballerina Assoluta Margot Fonteyn – and of stylistic value to the Company.
After a period of soul searching in the late nineties the Royal Ballet was again on a prosperous course and, at the time of the ballet’s revival to commemorate Ashton’s Centenary, the Company had plenty of young talent to fill the demanding ballerina role of Sylvia, goddess Diana’s favorite huntress, a powerful, celibate nymph who is led by Eros’s arrow to fall irrevocably in love with the shepherd Aminta. As Jane Simpson noted at the ballet’s last revival:
The whole piece, choreography apart, is balanced precariously on the knife edge between fun and foolishness and the least wobble, the least sign of doubt from the cast, could bring it crashing down on the wrong side. Ballet.co Magazine, February 2008. [link]
The production, with Greek draperies and temples, looks like an over the top Pre-Raphaelite vision. With Ondine Ashton proved he could dive deep into symbology but here, despite the argument based on Greek mythology, the story lacks substance. Certain passages seem to borrow from The Sleeping Beauty – albeit with none of Petipa’s subtext – so in Act 2 we see Eros showing to Sylvia a vision of Aminta before escorting her back to Diana’s temple by boat, and in Act 3 various well-known mythology characters dance at the Bacchus festival where Sylvia and Aminta are reunited.
There are, however, some redeeming features: Léo Delibes’s beautiful score (even Tchaikovsky was captivated by the richness of its melody) and Ashton’s choreography. Most remarkable is the Act 3 Pas De Deux where Aminta (Rupert Pennefather) enters the stage carrying Sylvia in a sculptural upright pose (see photo above) and which culminates in delicious “catch me if you can” fish dives. In the hands of less experienced dancers the fiendish pizzicato variation could look like “stop motion animation” but here Marianela Nuñez takes it at thrilling speed with astonishing fluidity. No less dazzling are her high jumps and intricate turns in Act 1.
Both Marianela and Rupert make the most of Ashton’s classicism, so we sit back, look away from the camp and enjoy their dancing. Sylvia is not a ballet I would recommend for newbies, as it may leave them with the impression that classical dance is as relevant today as an Alma Tadema painting, but strong performers help us overlook the production’s excesses. For a long time I’ve been curious to see John Neumeier’s modern take on the same story (see our clip of the week) and last night I was reminded that Sylvia might be best reinvented rather than reconstructed.