BWW Dance Review: American Ballet Theatre's SYLVIA
Last year I had the pleasure of attending American Ballet Theatre's newest incarnation of "The Sleeping Beauty." This production marries the sublime aesthetic of its native imperial ballet, with the warmth of populist humanism. Without disturbing the foundational power of the historic production, this ballet's structure was repositioned in such a manner as to inspire a democratic audience. A similar feat of historic aesthetic with contemporary virtue is attempted with "Sylvia," a Romantic ballet featuring music by Delibes. Though, where it is clear that the culture which conceived "The Sleeping Beauty" had profound respect for the piece's French subject matter, "Sylvia," influenced in turn by Greek and Eastern culture, was created with cultural fidelity neglected. As such, and especially when lacking the star power of Gillian Murphy in the lead role, as was the case when I attended on May 12th 2016, it appears that something beyond this Romantic perspective must be implemented if the work's thematic aims are to be reached.
The plot for "Sylvia" is simple, yet inelegant. Set in mythic Greece, the ballet opens with creatures worshiping at the altar of Eros, the Greek equivalent to Cupid. A shepherd from the city, named Aminta, startles them away. He is infatuated with Sylvia, leader of Diana's band of huntresses. Sylvia comes onstage, band of huntresses in tow, to mock Eros. Aminta attempts to conceal himself but is swiftly discovered by the women. Infuriated, Sylvia attempts to shoot an arrow at Eros, but Aminta blocks it. Eros returns fire, hitting Sylvia. Aminta is left incapacitated from Sylvia's arrow and Sylvia is brought offstage by the huntresses to tend to her wounds. She then returns sympathetic to Aminta's plight when Orion, who has been keeping watch throughout the proceedings and is equally infatuated with the huntress, abducts her. Villagers then enter the scene and, with the aid of Eros, revive Aminta and inform him of Orion's deeds.
At Orion's cave, the demigod is attempting to woo Sylvia with jewels and frivolity. She quietly mourns Aminta, holding Eros' arrow in her hand. She decides to humor Orion, persuading him to overindulge to the point of unconsciousness. Once he's asleep, she calls to Eros to bring her to her love. He complies, stealing her away from Orion's lair. Aminta is found at the temple of Artemis where a party, featuring famed Greek gods, is in full procession. Sylvia arrives with Eros, when Orion, aggravated by her deception, enters in a fury. Sylvia flees to the sanctuary of Diana's temple. Orion attempts to break in when Diana confronts and smites him. Diana then denies Aminta and Sylvia her blessing in marriage. Eros forces Diana to recall her passion for Endymion, a shepherd much like Aminta. Diana, convinced by this newfound romantic empathy, acquiesces to their marriage and Aminta and Sylvia are married with divine blessing.
The Greek world which "Sylvia" inhabits is suffocating in an innocuous rococo haze. While the forms of the dancers on display are appropriately statuesque, the rest of the production is painterly, calling to mind the often passed landscape paintings which dot the walls of art museums. Designers Robin and Christopher Ironside, and Peter Farmer's aesthetic commitment here is Romantic, and, with regards to this ambition, the design execution is superb. On the surface this Romantic commitment is a very reasonable decision, as its marriage is spectacularly founded with Delibes' charm-filled score, and each element succinctly compliments the other. Yet, in both design and score all artistic cards are played too quickly and unlike the twists and turns of Delibes' other great score, "Coppelia", where the stage action compels engagement, the performance construction becomes monochromatic and, worse yet, expected.
This is not the Greek world of depth in study, but a naive mythos filled with imposter gods. Eros persists in a dignity that not one Greek myth alludes to. Orion is little more than an Orientalist Shah with a harem, an artistic decision informed both by historic study and Delibes' score, which incorporates stereotypical Eastern rhythm into his carousel ride composition. Yet even, here the culturally problematic era of Orientalism isn't expanded utilizing a twenty first century consciousness. We are meant to be enthralled by the demeaning cartwheeling dancers and Sylvia's belly dance as if we were of the same perspective of the late 19th century French. Even Persephone and Hades, with Persephone crying in a wedding dress as she is being grappled with by Hades, are meant to delight. The only characters that retain authenticity are those constructions that are not initially Greek, Aminta and Sylvia. With these figures as the lead personificationsm one would think the ballet could be elevated by their virtues. However, without a seemingly authentic world to engage with, their plight is hollow.
Perhaps with the star power of Gillian Murphy in the title role these aesthetically repetitive elements would flatten into a canvas on which the quality of her performance could be made into the production's subject. Yet, without this star element and without a thematic structure tangibly in place, the ballet's ambition inhabits no vessel and reverberates back in upon itself. The three performers who shared the title role divided among the three acts had simply too much to achieve in this challenging position to elevate this piece into anything beyond itself. The choreography appeared to be dictated by music rather than be imbued by it, and left the stage with the inevitable tinge of insecurity. Marcelo Gomes is incredibly convincing as the ballet's romantic lead. Also, while the Orientalist reading of Orion is problematic, James Whiteside has the time of his life in the role. He punctuates the space with his movement, whirring himself into a virtuosic cubist sculpture. Many of the virtues of the production are consecrated in Frederick Ashton's textual choreography. His movement articulates the transformation of character, in particular Sylvia, from stoic individual to compassionate lover yet keeping manifest her virtues as a character.
When first performed in 1876, "Sylvia" was widely disregarded. In particular, people where astonished and discomforted by the masculine presentation of women. In this and other fashions, "Sylvia" is actually pertinent for contemporary audiences, and could be socially and thematically compelling. Yet when left to Romantic devises, these themes are stuck in a well worn mire of unconscious ignorance and naiveté.