American Ballet Theatre (ABT) opened its Spring Met season with Sylvia, a delightful Frederick Ashton 1952 work created as a star vehicle for Margot Fonteyn. Léo Delibes’ score is beautiful, a masterpiece of 19th-century ballet music. Tchaikovsky was so impressed with it that he once observed: “Had I known Sylvia existed, I would not have dared compose Swan Lake!”
The story is convoluted, with many twists and turns in this drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously. As described by Ashton: “Boy loves girl, girl captured by bad man, girl restored to boy by god.” Sylvia is based on a play by 16th century poet Torquato Tasso. The work centers around the simple shepherd Aminta, who is in love with Sylvia, a huntress nymph, who is loyal to Diana, goddess of chastity. Sylvia rejects Aminta’s advances and accidentally shoots him with her bow; Sylvia develops feelings for Aminta after Eros, the god of love (his Roman counterpart was Cupid) shoots her with an arrow. Orion, the evil hunter kidnaps Sylvia and takes her back to his hideout as Eros brings Aminta back to life. In Act II, Orion tries in vain to gain Sylvia’s affection with jewelry and clothes. She gets him drunk and dances a sultry, seductive dance as he drinks away. Eros comes to the rescue, taking Sylvia to a boat, leading to the Act III festival where she is reunited with Aminta. After some convincing, Diana gives her blessing to the union.
Critics love the work, which was revived in 2004 by The Royal Ballet and ABT, but it doesn’t sell well at the nearly 4,000 seat Met, unlike familiar full lengths such as Swan Lake and Giselle. There were many empty seats in the Thursday and Saturday evening performances. Give ABT credit for staging an important work at the expense of revenue from more well-known works.
Gillian Murphy was injured for the Thursday ABT Sylvia performance, setting in motion an interesting and rare casting result of separate lead casts in each act with three principal dancers portraying Sylvia and two for Aminta. In Act I, Isabella Boylston was Sylvia, partnered by Marcelo Gomes as Aminta; Maria Kochetkova danced Sylvia in Act II; with Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle as leads in Act III. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind three casts-the obvious decision would be to have one dancer replace Gillian, or replace both. But it was a special performance, giving the audience a chance to see different interpretations of the roles from five principal dancers, all dancing at a high level for the unique performance. This was probably put together at the last minute, but the multiple casting worked well given the intensity of the dancing.
Isabella and Marcelo (originally cast with Gillian) gave a strong Act I performance, starting with Marcelo’s opening adagio entrance solo, filled with great confidence. Isabella entered with her woodland creatures, triumphant and defiant after a successful hunt. Isabella worked her way successfully through her solo, a series of tricky, slow, connecting steps, including bourrées, changement on pointe (jumps from fifth position changing feet positions), chugs in arabesque. Dramatically, the two were in synch, particularly after she mourned his loss after shooting him with an arrow. Unlike a typical ABT performance, the pair took a curtain call at the end of the act (although curtain calls at the end of an act are standard for Russian companies).
Act II showcased Maria Kochetkova and Daniil Simkin as Orion. There is plenty of dramatic action in Act II as Orion tries in vain to gain Sylvia’s affection, tempting her with fine jewels and clothes. Sylvia dances seductively for Orion, encouraging him to drink wine until he is senseless. Although Maria was technically very good, featuring double pirouettes from fifth position, her dramatic action in the slow seduction segments was flat.
Act III featured Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle. I last saw Roberto in this role in 2013 in a memorable performance with Polina Semionova. Roberto still has it at age 41; his partnering with Hee was strong and unwavering, giving her robust support on her supported turns where she was off. His solos were solid, with high stag leaps and nice turn sections. Hee matched Roberto’s dancing, with a nice intricate solo, filled with refined pointe work. The Sylvia Act III dances are her strong suit, as revealed great expressiveness and musicality.
Throughout the changing casts, Daniil Simkin as Orion the evil hunter was a constant force, filled with great energy and passion. Particularly entertaining were his wide arm en dehors pirouettes.
Corps dancing in Act I of the woodland creatures, an Amazonian tribe dancing in celebration of their hunt, was energetic. This is a dance of female empowerment with tribe members dancing with bows and arrows: “Don’t mess with us! We rule the forest!” The dancers were together in the fouetté section; not an easy task given they are performing the step with a bow in one hand. Also, the lighting in the first set is beautiful, simulating a blue moonlit night that provides illumination for the dancing.
Saturday Evening, 4/14
Saturday evening was a more conventional Sylvia with Isabella and Mariinsky Ballet’s Xander Parish as leads. Previous ABT seasons have been filled with guest artists flying in for a few performances; Xander’s is the only guest appearance this season, although the program notes that he is an “Exchange Artist.” He has great style and technique, adding nice phrasing and emphasis on his Act III jumps. As I noted in my review of his Swan Lake with Mariinsky Ballet at BAM in January 2015, he is a natural jumper with good line and height. His turning abilities are weaker, but there are few pirouette sections in Sylvia.
As noted above, Sylvia debuted in 1952 and performed until 1965. The Royal Ballet and ABT wanted to co-produce and revive the work in the early 2000s, but there was a problem: the choreography was never notated and the only record was a poorly lit black and white film. Christopher Newton, ballet master under Ashton who danced Sylvia during the 1950s kept handwritten notes of the choreography and reconstructed the some of the steps from memory. In addition, costume designs were found in The Royal Ballet’s archives in a mislabeled box along with paintings and photographic records of the original sets. The World Premier of the revival of Sylvia was given by The Royal Ballet in 2004 while ABT debuted its version in 2005. See the ABT website for more detail.