The stars aligned last Saturday night at the Australian Ballet premiere of Sylvia, a standout production of mythological proportions. Sylvia is a constellation of spectacular dancing, extraordinary set design, gorgeous costumes and unrelenting entertainment set to a magnificent score. There are plenty of winged gods, silken tunics, river monsters, and an army of arrow-slinging female warriors in a Greek/Roman mythological setting. A confectioned delight, this new production offers beguiling characters dancing with extraordinary sets and costumes of operatic magnitude.
You will need a color-coded road map to keep track of the characters and multiple plot lines, which is thankfully provided at the start of the ballet. Sylvia is like a Christmastime gingerbread house; a thing of beauty you admire for weeks. Enjoy Sylvia for her attractiveness and unapologetic whimsy. This production is vastly entertaining. At the top is Principal Ballerina Ako Kondo who radiates in the title role. She is a goddess of dance in the most developed character in the ballet, featuring her astute acting skills, effortless grace and strength with sublime technique. It is no wonder Sir Fredrick Ashton developed his version of Sylvia as a platform for Dame Margot Fonteyn in 1952. It is a plum role. Surely the gods of Mt. Olympus are enthusiastically nodding in approval of Ms. Kondo’s performance.
Balletomanes will relish this production’s aesthetic design and formidable female characters danced with poise and perfection by Principal ballerinas Kondo and Robyn Hendricks alongside Soloist Benedicte Bemet. The women are bold and assertive, a welcome relief from the usual model of demure and delicate ballet roles. Perhaps this reflects how, over time, women dancers have become far more athletic than their 19th and even 20th century predecessors. It seems timely to have a ballet that subtly evokes virtues of strength, wisdom and feminine power. Not to belie the fact that there are many alluring male dancers in Sylvia worthy of their female partners – Senior Artist Marcus Morelli is an exuberant Eros dancing with impressive ballon in his jumps and precise beats in his footwork. He illuminates the stage with his dancing and theatrics. Kevin Jackson enlivens his character with quirk and appeal. Much of his choreography is angular and flattened, reminiscent of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun. Speaking of fauns, quartet Shaun Andrews, Drew Hedditch, Cameron Holmes and Yichuan Wang nearly steal the show with court jester like antics filled with bravado and hilarity. Their names are worth mentioning as talented young artists to watch among the ranks of Coryphée and Corps de Ballet.
Hendricks as Artemis is clad in blue with stately grace, restrained strength and power befitting an Olympian. Her love interest is Orion, danced by Principal Artist Adam Bull with steadfast calm. He expertly partners his ballerina through intricate lifts. Bemet is perfectly cast as Psyche, embodying the very essence of ingénue straight out of a Disney Princess fairytale.
Another reason to see this ballet is the set design, so beautifully crafted by costumer and designer Jérôme Kaplan and video projections by Wendall K. Harrington. This partnership of world-class artists makes Sylvia exceptional. Supported by lighting designer Lisa J. Pinkham, Harrington’s projections are reminiscent of a Maxfield Parrish painting come alive (think Daybreak, 1922) and are impressive in their ability to enhance the production without causing distracting shadows. The set moves seamlessly, supporting both the projections and multiple plotlines. With the addition of some of the most fluid costumes seen in ballet, Syliva’s overall design aesthetic is stunning.
I would be remiss not to give proper praise to Léo Delibes’ opulent and august score. If for no other reason, music lovers should see this production for the rare opportunity of hearing this music performed by a world class conductor and orchestra. With enchanting melodies, Delibes’ composition has often been considered a gem in the ballet music repertoire. Resident Musical Director Nicolette Fraillon flawlessly conducts with verve and sensitivity. Act I/II Entr’acte envelopes Delibes’ ability to add poise and hesitation to a memorable melody while providing a clever character-driven duet for Principals Kondo and Jackson. Act III Pizzicato is probably the most recognizable variation from the score, featured in the movie Babe, and provides another coquettish duet for Kondo and Jackson. Act I Prelude and Fanfare are particularly grand and encompassing with great use of brass and wind instruments, while the delicate “Valse Lente” counters with more instrumental refinement. At the time the ballet was originally produced, it proved to be unpopular overall with the exception of the score, in relation to which Tchaikovsky aptly said “…what charm, what wealth of melody! It brought me to shame, for had I known of this music, I never would have written Swan Lake.”
With a flimsy plot dating back to the Paris Opera debut in 1876, Sylvia is a somewhat forgotten ballet known for a memorable score. For over a century, choreographers have been arguably challenged to match the score with a worthy libretto. Australian Ballet Resident Choreographer and Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch has perhaps solved the quandary with his libretto adding two sub-stories to the original Greek myth. He maintains integrity to the original narrative by aligning Sylvia with other strong female characters and interweaving plots. His choreography is inventive, classical with a modern twist and a sprinkle of folk dance steps.
Welch’s well-known connection to the Australian Ballet is multi-layered dating back to his parents who were “most gifted dancers” in the company. His own tenure with the AB brought him up to the rank of soloist and current Resident Choreographer for over twenty years. This affiliation enabled Welch to facilitate the co-production with the Houston Ballet who premiered Sylvia on 21 February, 2019 coinciding with Delibes’ 219th birthday.
Sylvia/Sylvia is beautiful, a woman of many faces, moods and colors. She will entrance you, love you and leave you feeling consumed by earthly delights. Don’t let her slip away without a fleeting glance; her arrow will pierce your heart!
Paris Wages reviewed the Australian Ballet’s Australian premiere of Sylvia at the Arts Centre Melbourne on August 31, 2019.