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Sylvia, the Unlucky Nymph


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#1 Mariano

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Posted 04 August 2007 - 10:04 AM

"Sylvia" remained a mystery to me for a long time. Despite the fact that the beautiful music Delibes wrote for this mythological theme has been one of the most popular all over the world since it was composed, the ballet was rarely seen in the theatres, not even in New York City. Nor was "Sylvia" available on film, VHS or DVD. To this day, no commercial version has ever been released on any of these two formats, as far as I know.

However, the last 2 years changed my personal experience with this unlucky ballet and, somehow, resolved the “mystery”. In 2005 the American Ballet Theatre included "Sylvia" (Frederick Ashtons version) in the repertory and I was finally able to see "Sylvia" for the first time!

Both the ABTs and the Royal Ballets are the same new revival of "Sylvia" that Ashton was longing to do from his own original 1952 choreography that was danced by the legendary Margot Fonteyn. Ashton was never very happy with his original work. Then "Sylvia" disappeared again from London for nearly 40 years.

In 1988 Ashton felt that it was about the right time to revive "Sylvia", and discussed with Christopher Newton, the artistic coordinator and a former Royal Ballet dancer, all the changes he had in mind but, unfortunately, he died three months later, and "Sylvia" was put off again for almost 20 more years until Newton decided to take over the task, based on all discussions with Ashton and on a black-and-white, silent film of the original Ashtons version.

I have to say that the ABT performance did not impact me in the theatre as much as the Royal Ballet does, although both are basically the same version but danced by different companies. And to me, Ashtons "Sylvia" (or Ashton/Newtons) is a more vivid and provocative rendition than the one Darsonval had staged for the Paris Opera.

Why the mystery? Why is this ballet on stage only a few performances and forgotten again for another number of years? The ABT danced "Sylvia" only one season, just a few performances. The Royal Ballet was more successful but still nothing compared to the rest of their repertory.

After watching these three performances and learning what "Sylvia" is all about, it seems to me that this ballet is lacking impact somehow, no matter who choreographed it or who is dancing it.

I think any choreographer would struggle with this challenge. Why is that? For one thing, it is my impression that religious stories, even from the Greco-Roman mythology, do not mix with ballet easily. But in this particular case of "Sylvia", the libretto is more responsible for the lack of success than the story itself.

There are many incidents throughout this libretto (nave, or even laughable for some audiences), which I have no intention to describe, that reduce the weight or impact of this ballet. In my opinion, same incidents, if treated in a different fashion by the librettist, could have had a different result on this ballet as a whole, and Delibes would have written a different score, maybe shorter, maybe longer, but with the same main themes and equally beautiful. The Tchaikovsky-Petipa binomial was a miracle in the history of ballet.

The first act of "Sylvia" can stands on its own. The story is coherent and attractive. I cannot say the same about the second act where no much happens. And the third act is like the grand finale where the conflicts are resolved and where Diana appears just for 4 or 5 minutes at the end.

I saw the ABT "Sylvia" only once at the Met here in New York City but have watched the Paris Operas and Royal Ballets many times. The Ashtons choreography still amazes me, so sharp and eloquent, with all the steps tailored not only to the character but also to the dramatic situation, and it is so demanding!

I love the way Darcey Bussell portrays the title role with her remarkable technique only equaled by her partner Roberto Bolle. Although this was the first and only time I have seen Thiago Soares, what he did with Oberon put him at the same level.

Then I let time pass by and let my brain slowly “digest” these impressions. When I look back and I ask myself “do you think the music by Delibes still stands out in spite of the efforts by the British genius?” I think so, but at least I can say that "Sylvia" is no longer a mystery, and that this version is to me very enjoyable, and that the Royal Ballet and their soloists made of this unlucky ballet a memorable evening that I can watch over and over.

Mariano

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 04 August 2007 - 10:44 AM

Ashton developed a bit of a superstition about his ballets that he thought of as a "three-act jinx". He was unhappy about audiences received Sylvia, Ondine wasn't a great success, and his version of Cinderella he didn't feel was up to his best work. He avoided his jinx in La Fille mal Garde by making it two acts, three scenes.

Darsonval's version of the ballet was a resetting of Leo Staats' version which itself was supposedly a resetting of the Louis Merante original. So there we have a choreographic game of "telephone" with "as told to, as told to, as told to, etc."

One of the biggest problems with the show is that it is an Anacreontic ballet, like Beethoven's The Creatures of Prometheus, played to audiences who have seen Giselle, Swan Lake, and all the works that have followed them. I have heard it said that we can never know what the harpsichord must have sounded like to its original audiences because we have heard pianos. Much the same is what works against Sylvia. It isn't even "quaint". It relates to an sthetic long in disuse.

#3 carbro

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 07:10 PM

The ABT danced "Sylvia" only one season, just a few performances.

Two seasons, actually (2005 and 2006) though your valid complaint about few (total of 12) performances suggests a half-hearted commitment to it. How can the dancers "get" it if they don't have a chance to work with it?

I have not (yet) given up hope that it will return soon. :wink:

#4 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 09:08 PM

I can say that "Sylvia" is no longer a mystery, and that this version is to me very enjoyable, and that the Royal Ballet and their soloists made of this unlucky ballet a memorable evening that I can watch over and over.


This is a very interesting thread, and sometimes i've wondered also about the origins and details of the Ashton's version. After i read your post, i did some online research and found this interesting review of the Royal Ballet production.

http://www.onlinerev...ews/Sylvia.html

:wink:

#5 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 09:43 PM

"Sylvia" remained a mystery to me for a long time. Despite the fact that the beautiful music Delibes wrote for this mythological theme has been one of the most popular all over the world since it was composed, the ballet was rarely seen in the theatres, not even in New York City. Nor was "Sylvia" available on film, VHS or DVD. To this day, no commercial version has ever been released on any of these two formats, as far as I know.

Why the mystery? Why is this ballet on stage only a few performances and forgotten again for another number of years? The ABT danced "Sylvia" only one season, just a few performances. The Royal Ballet was more successful but still nothing compared to the rest of their repertory.

After watching these three performances and learning what "Sylvia" is all about, it seems to me that this ballet is lacking impact somehow, no matter who choreographed it or who is dancing it.

I think any choreographer would struggle with this challenge. Why is that?



Regarding the "Sylvia" matters, i've always thought that the main reason for why this ballet has been so unlucky is because Petipa never got a hold on it . Still, ''Sylvia'' is regarded as a milestone of 19th century ballet BUT RATHER FOR ITS SCORE . It is not from the same source that provides most of the late 19th-century classics seen today ( the tradition of Russian classical ballet as epitomized by the Petipa/Ivanov duo). ''Sylvia'' comes straight down from the French line, about which American ballet has done little to inform itself, so i would say that another cause of "Sylvia's unlucky life has to do with the current inability to locate the ballet's true style, (Merante's 1876 original choreography is lost :tiphat: ), and then to take an accurate attitude towards it.

:wink:

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 03:38 AM

One reason for that is the lack of a French "diaspora". With the Revolution, a lot of Russians bailed out and went west. The French, no matter what the crisis, always seem to hang in and not emigrate. But the later Ivanov/Gerdt/Legat version of this ballet hasn't come down to us anyway.

#7 Mashinka

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 05:39 AM

Has the ballet been so unlucky? What about Neumeier's version in which he takes part of the original story and turns it into a theme of the passing of time and loss? I've always considered his production to be very successful.

Perhaps what Ashton's version needs is a dancer in the Fonteyn mould to do it justice.

#8 bart

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 06:50 AM

What about Neumeier's version in which he takes part of the original story and turns it into a theme of the passing of time and loss? I've always considered his production to be very successful.

And very powerful, when done by Paris Opera Ballet. Neumeier's own lighting, and the stripped down modern sets and and costumes by Yannis Kokkos, are striking. It's a spare, elegant showcase for the dancing. Given the unfamiliarity of the story to modern audiences, it works just as well in this kind of setting -- and possibly even better, at least it seems to me -- than in one that may be overladen with faux ancient Greek details.

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 03:06 PM

But in Broadway terms, what's happened with the Neumeier is called "book doctoring". It's not an Anacreontic ballet any more. Maybe that's what it needs to speak to today's audience.

#10 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 04:22 PM

"Sylvia" remained a mystery to me for a long time. Despite the fact that the beautiful music Delibes wrote for this mythological theme has been one of the most popular all over the world since it was composed, the ballet was rarely seen in the theatres, not even in New York City. Nor was "Sylvia" available on film, VHS or DVD. To this day, no commercial version has ever been released on any of these two formats, as far as I know.



And let's not forget too that aside from all of the above and the fact that the 1876 original Merante's choreography is lost, any factual/helpful reference to the 1901 Ivanov/Gerd/ restaging of the ballet in S. Petersbourg with Mme. Preobrejanskaya in the title role is also non existent...
Am i right bart, Mel, rg...?

:)

#11 FauxPas

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 04:30 PM

My problem is with the story. Basically, Sylvia kills Aminta in the first thirty minutes of the ballet, then she falls in love with him. We don't know if she knows he has been revived by Eros, the Ashton ballet never shows her mourning over him or realizing that she has killed a man she loves. Kind of like the story of Tancredi and Clorinda the maid who fights for the Muslims dressed as a warrior but has become infatuated with the enemy general Tancredi. In a night battle, Tancredi challenges her to a duel mistaking her for an enemy warrior and after she is killed by him he strips her body of its armor and then discovers that she is a woman and beautiful. But it is too late, she is dead. This story is from Tasso's "Gerusalemme Liberata". There is dramatic meat here.

The story doesn't establish an emotional connection or reaction to Sylvia's being shot by Eros and falling in love and then realizing that she has killed the man she loves. We have to see her give in to regret and despair over this act and then be joyously restored to her lover she thought dead. This has an emotional arc.

As it is she doesn't seem to realize he is dead, only that she has been abducted from him and must escape. The scene where Eros shows Sylvia a vision of Aminta isn't clear whether she believes it is a vision of a dead person or joyous glimpse of her previously believed killed lover revived. In the final grand pas, she is simply brought on by him and they dance together - no moment of recognition, surprise, reunion, joy, nothing...

If I could grab Ashton and make suggestions I would have Sylvia blindfolded by Eros with a long veil like in "Bayadere" in the scene where he carries her off to her lover in the previous act. Then in the final wedding act, she is carried on by Aminta still blindfolded by the long diaphonous veil whose long ends are flowing behind her. Eros unveils her eyes and she sees her love miraculously alive and reunited with her and they dance that pas de deux. That way we have a climax.

The other disappointment with the ABT version was how poorly executed and rehearsed the corps dances were. I was sure that by the next year's revival they would be cleaned up and look professional, but no, the second season the corps work was just as sloppy and unstylish.

No discussion of the Mark Morris version at San Francisco ballet?

I think for a ballet to achieve immortality it needs three things: a great story, a great score and a great choreography. Most of the ballets that have fallen into obscurity have done so because they lacked one or more of these elements.

#12 tikititatata

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 09:37 PM

No discussion of the Mark Morris version at San Francisco ballet?


Hello FauxPas, I hesitate to jump in b/c I haven't seen full productions of Sylvia other than Morris'. I read a lot of reviews here and elsewhere of people despising MM -- whoa! But I actually enjoyed it a lot. I thought his story line was very clear and perfectly nuanced. SFB (Tomasson ballets actually) often has too much deliberate miming or acting, but Morris suggests just enough. Of course his Sylvia is a contemporary ballet, though Act III is jam packed with some crazy hard combinations for the main couple (esp Aminta). I wrote a lot for SFB's 2006 Season, though I won't reiterate them here. I actually like Sylvia as a character and Mark Morris had a great approach to it -- developing a strong woman who is true to herself throughout the story. Person and plot, I prefer her to some other heroines ;)

#13 Mel Johnson

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Posted 07 August 2007 - 03:03 AM

That's another part of it. Morris and others have doctored the book so that it's not so dependent on the audience having a firm grounding in the Graeco-Roman classics. Putting in the subtitle "The Nymph of Diana" is likely to raise expectations of something to do with PRINCESS Diana among many. The killing of Amynta in the early part of the ballet gets a replay when, in the end of the ballet the goddess Diana herself is reminded of her own infatuation with Endymion. So, for the classicist there's an A-B-A to the plot structure, and it ends neatly.


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