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Three faces of Sylvia

A ballet problem child strikes choreographers in all sorts of ways, with a trio of perspectives right at hand.

April 30, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

"WHO is Sylvia? What is she ...?" Shakespeare asked in a song lyric written for "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" in 1594 or '95. He supplied his own answer, but the dance world came up with another nearly three centuries later when Leo Delibes composed a magnificent score for a neoclassic three-act "Sylvia" at the Paris Opera Ballet.

Don't undervalue the extraordinary passion, grandeur and sheen of that score -- for it inspired and even intimidated a pantheon of major artists. Start with Tchaikovsky, who called it "the first ballet in which the music constitutes not only the chief but the sole point of interest.... Had I known that music I would not have written 'Swan Lake.' "

Lucky for us he didn't hear "Sylvia" in time -- and we're just as lucky Sergei Diaghilev's plans to stage a production in St. Petersburg fell through, because otherwise that great impresario might never have left Russia to reinvigorate ballet in Western Europe.

Because of Delibes, the lure of "Sylvia" persists, despite the ridiculous contrivances of the original 1876 libretto, which concerns a nymph of the goddess Diana who scorns romance but is forced into it by the god Eros before being abducted by a lustful, swarthy huntsman named Orion. Arrogant chastity faces incipient rape by one of the darker races -- ah, the glories of post-Romantic, pre-feminist dance drama.

Aminta, the shepherd who loves Sylvia, is probably the most ineffectual leading man in all of ballet. But that didn't stop Lev Ivanov (1901), Serge Lifar (1941), Frederick Ashton (1952), John Neumeier (1997), Mark Morris (2004) and many others from remaking "Sylvia" in their own styles for major companies.

Well-heeled California balletomanes can look at ballet's eternal problem child in triplicate next week. American Ballet Theatre is dancing Ashton's version from Friday through next Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. San Francisco Ballet is presenting Morris' edition on Tuesday, Wednesday and next Sunday in that city's War Memorial Opera House, and TDK has recently issued a DVD featuring the Paris Opera Ballet in a 2005 performance of Neumeier's radical alternative.

If you look at these ballets and ask who is Sylvia, what is she, you'll get three different answers. For Ashton, she's the ultimate virginal ballerina: Margot Fonteyn in excelsis. For Morris, she's a resourceful comic seductress, luring a crew of addled slaves into drunken slumber. To Neumeier, she's a symbol of lost love -- a woman who discovers her deepest needs too late.

Created for England's Royal Ballet, Ashton's "Sylvia" remains the most faithful of the three to the work's original plot and world view. This was only the second full-length work by Ashton, the British choreographer widely considered one of the 20th century's greatest masters. David Vaughan's authoritative biography of him says he remembered Delibes appearing in a dream, kissing him and saying (in French of course), "You have saved my ballet."

Not for long. Unlike Ashton's "Cinderella," its predecessor, this "Sylvia" never earned a place in the company's permanent repertory despite numerous revisions. (Ashton even reduced it to one act in 1967). A recent British telecast of the Royal Ballet's meticulous full-length reconstruction (later adopted by ABT) helps explain why. For all the majestic choreographic style that Ashton brought to the project, the result lacks an emotional core and seems cold compared with his most enduring narrative works.

"The Sleeping Beauty" is generally considered a perfect ballet, but Ashton added a lyrical awakening pas de deux to the Royal Ballet production, allowing Aurora and her prince time alone to explore and declare their love. You'll find similar interludes in his "Cinderella," "The Dream," "A Month in the Country" -- all his greatest achievements.

But he never choreographed a love duet for Sylvia and Aminta -- merely a spectacular showpiece pas de deux in the last act. It's great in its way, but it isn't enough. And though Ashton did add other Delibes music to "Sylvia," those supplements supported such questionable conceits as a comic pas de deux for sacrificial goats.

Alas, there's also no unifying love duet in the Morris "Sylvia," and every time this American modernist famed for his unorthodox music visualizations goes up against Ashton, he loses. But there are plenty of original staging ideas and passages of sophisticated choreography to savor in his first nonoperatic full-evening work in more than a decade.

For starters, Morris clearly adores antique stagecraft, and it's impossible to resist such effects as Sylvia dallying in a giant garlanded swing a la the classic painting by Fragonard -- or the arrival of a ship manned (or rather womanned) by harem beauties. He has also worked to fashion a clear and natural style of pantomime and to heighten the plot's gender reversals: an active weapon-wielding heroine versus a passive, decorative hero.

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