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Robert Abrams
Adventures Abroad
Performance Reviews
Star Trek
Royal Opera House
London, OT (England)

Royal Ballet - Sylvia

by Robert Abrams
November 5, 2004
Royal Opera House
Bow Street
Covent Garden
London, OT (England) WC2E 9DD
020 7304 4000

Royal Ballet - Sylvia

presented at
The Royal Opera House
Covent Garden
London, England


Robert Abrams
November 5, 2004

Act I began with a fog shrouded stage. The scene is set at night in a clearing in the middle of a thick forest. Constellations shine in the sky.

Fauns in blue come out to play. Nymphs awake with fluttering hands. The fauns and nymphs dance in partnership roped together with garlands of flowers. There are twelve dancers in total. They move across the stage and in circles as a group.

After much dancing, the nymphs seem to have worn the fauns out. The nymphs enchant the fauns with their beauty. So inspired, the fauns gracefully carry the nymphs across the stage in both directions. Now the nymphs rope the fauns and then the fauns rope the nymphs again. They dance together and then rest. All in all, this blue passage was a beautiful start to the ballet.

The Shepard Aminta, danced by David Makhateli, enters. He bows to the statue of Eros that dominates the glade. He sees the nymphs a-hunting. It was clearly a successful hunt because they are carrying two carcasses on a stick. He falls for them. Did he have any choice? After all, who wouldn't fall for women carrying a bloody carcass?

The lead nymph in white, Sylvia, danced by Zenaida Yanowsky, blows on a hunting horn and then throws it off stage with a bank shot off of a tree. Aminta hides to watch the nymphs dance. The nymphs make creative use of their bows. They dance under and over their bows. They form an archway with the bows. This section is danced with strength. While I liked this section very much, I think it could have gone further. I would not be so bold as to suggest revisions to this Ashton revival, but perhaps for a variations danced by itself. Since Sylvia dances over a bow on the ground and under a bow held high, she could also dance under a bow held low like a limbo stick. She could leap over a bow held high like a high jump. I liked that the bows used in this production had some elasticity in their string, that the use of the bows was not just pantomime. However, they can and should take this farther. The ballerinas should fire actual arrows from real bows. Ballerinas are already put to the test with extended en pointe sections. Since ballerinas are frequently called upon to pretend to fire a bow and arrow, let's see them do it for real. They should dance energetically, and then be required to accurately hit a target. This would also help make dance into an Olympic sport: if ballroom dance is being considered as an Olympic event, there is no reason to exclude ballet, especially since this would be similar to the biathalon (cross country skiing and shooting) that is already an Olympic sport.

After the bow section, Sylvia danced a solo in which she demonstrated excellent balance en pointe. Three nymphs reprised her solo followed by an eight nymph reprise. Sylvia danced another solo followed by leaping nymphs followed by a third solo. To end this section, the nymphs formed a grid that framed Sylvia's motions through them.

Now the nymphs find Aminta's cloak and then they find Aminta. Sylvia is mad that Aminta has been watching them dance, so she tries to shoot Eros' statue, but Aminta tries to protect the statue and takes the arrow in his chest. The statue, who is really Eros, shoots Sylvia. Sylvia discovers she is okay (yes, she is going to be madly in love with Aminta later) and leaps off. Aminta collapses almost in death.

Some peasants enter and dance, some carrying mini sheep. This dance is very active with much fluttering jumps and a section much like a square dance with groups dancing into the center and then dancing in their own four groups.

Amina crawls out into the center of the glade and now he dies.

The evil hunter, Orion, enters and dances evilly with multiple spins on one foot. Sylvia has reentered by this point. Now she can't get enough of Aminta, now that he is dead. Is divine intervention really what it takes to attract a quality strong woman? Orion wants Slyvia even though she doesn't want him and they dance together. I especially liked the rhythmic ways Orion, danced by Gary Avis, led Sylvia in assisted spins.

A cloaked figure enters. The peasants beseech him to help Aminta. Why they assume a cloaked figure can help a dead guy, I don't know, but it is a Greek myth transposed into a narrative ballet, so it makes a certain kind of sense. Or maybe peasants are more perceptive than people usually give them credit for and see through Eros' disguise. Eros decides to help him (note to self: try protecting statues of Eros and see if it works any better than online dating). Eros plucks a white flower from a tree, turns it into a red poppy and brings Aminta back to life. (Many people have been wearing red poppies in the UK while I have been here that they got for donating to a charity that supports British World War II veterans, so a poppy was the first flower that sprang to my mind.) Eros reveals himself. The peasants show their adoration of him. Eros points. Aminta goes where Eros points. The curtain falls to end Act I.

The Royal Opera house is small compared to the New York State Theatre, but it is extremely elegant in a red, gold and white décor scheme. Smaller also means that you are closer to great dancing than you would be in a larger theatre. The Royal Opera House also has the commendable policy of allowing patrons to order drinks in advance so the drinks are ready to be served at the start of the desired intermission. This system is similar to that in place at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. At the New York State Theatre, you can spend half of intermission standing on line waiting to order a drink. The New York State Theatre should really send a staff person over to London to study the Royal Opera House and put a pre-order system in place at home. (Just make sure to give the NY State Theatre staff person given the job a lot of petty cash because London is very expensive - which is saying a lot because I live in New York, which isn't exactly cheap.) It also appears that at the Royal Opera House you can even order and eat a lobster for dinner during the intermission. For those who want to sup, rather than dine, you can buy special ice cream, but I will talk about that during the second intermission.

Act II begins in Orion's island lair. Orion has two henchmen dressed like pirates, plus two maidservants. The portrayal of the Orion gang has more stereotyped depictions of Asian influences than I might prefer, but it is a revival so I can let it go and just enjoy it. I do think, though, that Sylvia has enough good material to justify an updating. You could make Orion into a greedy businessman, perhaps.

Orion tries to woo the captive Sylvia with jewels but she rejects them. Orion and Sylvia dance together quite a lot in Act II. Their partnering was always smooth. They demonstrated great assurance at the end of each move. There was a lot of very good dancing this evening, but this partnering in Act II was far and away my favorite.

All of Act II was superb, in its parts and in the way the whole was tightly integrated.

Orion's henchmen danced an amusing mixed ethnic dance that, maybe, was a cross between Chinese and Egyptian.

Sylvia dances in large measure to win her freedom from Orion. If the Royal Ballet wants to earn enough money to pay for next season, they should cover her in green body paint. If you ask why, you don't watch enough Star Trek. Sylvia is currently a slave girl. She is dancing for Orion. In the pilot episode of Star Trek, an Orion slave girl dances seductively for Kirk, who is playing an emperor in a dream sequence. Enterprise, the TV show, has recently brought back Orions as a featured alien race. Star Trek has a long tradition of cultural interludes. A Royal Ballet segment on Enterprise the TV show should help earn ratings during Sweeps Week, for which Paramount should be willing to pay some reasonably large sum. See, it all makes perfect sense.

While some of the portrayal of "Asian" influences in Sylvia are a little stereotypical, some are authentic. For instance, Sylvia's costume in Act II bares her midriff, but also covers her naval. Covering one's naval is a traditional way of maintaining modesty even in the otherwise sensual dance form sometimes called belly dancing.

In the middle of Act II Sylvia and Orion continued to dance well together. Their four secondaries (Helen Crawford, Samantha Raine, Kenta Kura and Johannes Stepanek) danced well with energy too.

Finally, Sylvia manages to get everyone else to fall asleep drunk. She recovers the arrow that reminds her of Aminta. She can't find her way home.

Eros appears with a flaming torch and opens the way. This is a very impressive set change that happens before your eyes, complete with boat and henchmen either being pulled off to the sides or sinking into the ground. The boat sails off.

Act II ends. It is a short act, but it is packed with talent.

I promised you ice cream during the second intermission. You can order ice cream specially made for the Royal Opera House in chocolate, strawberry, vanilla or stem ginger for two pounds. Stem ginger is a vanilla base with a rush of real ginger flavor with each bite. The ginger flavor starts subtle and then fills the mouth with noticeable force as you eat more of it. It is quite good, but perhaps it is not for those with a timid palate.

Act III starts with four hornsmen of Diana (the hunter goddess) announcing a bacchanalia. A group of four men and four women dance with lots of bowing with grapes on a stick. Another eight dance, then a main couple, then a pair of cats (they are supposed to be goats, but they looked like cats with horns to me), and then a devil and a flower girl. Nine women dance, followed by a full stage of dancers. The stamping of the dancers' feet was audible. Some people like to hear the footwork and some people expect ballet feet to be silent. In this section I thought the audible footwork worked because it is what you expect from a rowdy crowd. If anything, I think they should have made it louder, like in flamenco.

Act III is all about grand group numbers. For instance, after the orgy, the ensemble greets Eros who arrives on his boat with Sylvia and her nymphs. There are solos in this act, but they are always framed by the large group of dancers. When Eros dances, his muscled legs are shown off to good effect. Sylvia demonstrates skill in pointe work in a solo. Aminta dances a solo with nice jumps. The goats dance a duet. Aminta carries Sylvia in and spins her several ways. Sylvia also does several flying leaps and is caught expertly by Aminta each time. The audience really loved this pairing.

As an aside, I don't have a problem with the goats, but I couldn't figure out what they were doing there. They could have just as easily been any other creature or people. If this were a movie, the goats would have been there to sell plush toys of themselves.

There are more big group dances.

Orion comes back. He fights with Aminta. Sylvia runs inside Diana's temple. Orion bangs on the temple door to get her to come out. Diana comes out and she is none too happy at being disturbed. She shoots Orion with an arrow and he crawls off to die. Diana would have shot Aminta and Sylvia too, but Eros shows her a movie from when Diana was in love with a Shepard. Diana relents. There is more dancing. The full stage of dancers walks to positions for a triumphant final pose. Sylvia and Aminta live happily ever after.

Sylvia - a ballet in three acts
Music - Leo Delibes
Choreography - Frederick Ashton
Production realization and staging - Christopher Newton
Original Designs - Robin and Christopher Ironside
Additional designs (revival) - Peter Farmer
Lighting - Mark Jonathan
Senior Ballet Master - Christopher Carr
Principal Coaching - Alexander Agadzhanov, Lesley Collier, Donald MacLeary
Conductor - Graham Bond
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Guest Leader - Robert Gibbs
Syliva (one of Diana's nymphs) - Zenaida Yanowsky
Aminta (a Shepherd) - David Makhateli
Orion (the evil hunter) - Gary Avis
Eros (God of Love) - Martin Harvey
Diana (the Huntress, Goddess of Chastity) - Gillian Revie
Sylvia's Attendants - Deirdre Chapman, Helen Crawford, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura McCullock, Sarah Lamb, Isabel McMeekan, Samantha Raine, Vanessa Palmer
Orion's Concubines - Helen Crawford, Samantha Raine
Slaves - Kenta Kura, Johannes Stepanek
Goats - Iohna Loots, Jose Martin
Sylvia's attendants - Deirdre Chapman, Helen Crawford, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Laura McCullock, Francesca Filpi, Vanessa Palmer, Samantha Raine
Ceres and Jaseion - Isabel McMeekan, Thomas Whitehead
Persephone and Pluto - Caroline Duprot, Johannes Stepanek
Terpsichore and Apollo - Vanessa Fenton, Valeri Hristov
Additional roles danced by Artists of the Royal Ballet

Photo courtesy of Robert Abrams

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