The myth of Sylvia, a nymph in the service of Diana, goddess of the hunt, has been a favorite subject of choreographers since 1876, when Louis Merante created the ballet "Sylvia" to music by Léo Delibes for Théâtre de l'Opera in Paris. Since then, several choreographers have created their own versions, among them Serge Lifar and Albert Aveline. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have seen the glowing pas de deux to the famed "Pizzicato Polka," staged by George Balanchine in 1951 for Maria Tallchief and Nicholas Magallanes, will never forget it. (Later on, André Eglevsky partnered Tallchief in the piece.)
Frederick Ashton created his version of "Sylvia" in 1952 for Margot Fonteyn and the Sadler's Wells Ballet (later on the Royal Ballet). Christopher Newton, a former dancer, repetiteur, ballet master, and artistic coordinator for the Royal Ballet, has now staged it for American Ballet Theatre. The premiere took place on June 3 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Original designs by Robin and Christopher Ironside were utilized, with additional designs by Peter Farmer.
We saw the matinee of June 4, with Julie Kent as Sylvia and Gennadi Saveliev as the shepherd Aminta, who falls in love with her. Orion, the evil hunter, was portrayed by Sascha Radetsky; Carlos Lopez was Eros, god of love; and Kristi Boone danced Diana the huntress, goddess of chastity.
We used to think of "Don Quixote" as the dance-until-you-drop ballet, for it has overwhelming action going on simultaneously in all directions. But after seeing the title character constantly in full view throughout "Sylvia," dancing her dear little heart out while compelled to maintain extensive balance, we now consider the role of Sylvia to be the counterpart of "Don Quixote" 's Kitri. Both are blockbusters.
When Sylvia, sworn to chastity as one of Diana's nymphs, has the temerity to mock Eros, her troubles commence. Aminta, the shepherd who is in love with Sylvia and has been secretly watching her, is suddenly pulled from his hiding place. He declares his love for her. Sylvia, blaming the god of love, draws her arrow at Eros. Aminta, who shields the statue of Eros, is pierced by Sylvia's arrow and dies. Eros retaliates by shooting an arrow at Sylvia. The nymph is badly shaken, but being immortal, she removes the arrow. Eros then brings Aminta back to life.
The villain Orion, who has also been watching Sylvia, manages to capture her and carry her off to his cave. He attempts to win her favor by bestowing priceless jewels upon her, which she promptly rejects. When he attempts to ply her with drink, the clever lady manages to reverse the procedure and pours the drink down his throat. He falls in a drunken stupor and she escapes, only to be unable to find her way out of his mountain stronghold.
Sylvia prays to Eros for help. Eros appears in a boat (shades of "Sleeping Beauty") and transports Sylvia to the temple of Diana, where the love god reunites Aminta and Sylvia. When Orion attempts to recapture Sylvia, Diana appears and kills him. Her anger now turns on the lovers and she forbids their union.
Eros reminds Diana via a vision seen in the background that she, too, was once infatuated by a shepherd, one named Endy-mion. Diana then relents and gives the lovers her blessing.
Although Ashton's version of the ballet is succinct, having been pared down to two instead of three acts, there is nevertheless choreographic abundance to please even the most finicky of gods and the most demanding of balletomanes.
Kent, in appearance and ingenuity, made an ideal nymph, managing to maintain her radiance throughout the lengthy role. One of the most memorable sequences was realized when she sautéed in arabesque on pointe and, at the conclusion of this difficult feat, still retained her balance in arabesque before descending from pointe.
Through all of Kent's adventures, she was required to maintain extensive balance, holding firmly in tours as well as exhibiting flawless line for an unbelievable length of time, and she always came through with consummate ease, despite being constantly in view for two lengthy acts.
Saveliev's Aminta may have seemed mild by comparison, but the part is far from stellar, and Saveliev did better than all right. Orion was performed with villainous relish by Radetsky, Lopez displayed a great sense of mischief as Eros, and Boone was impressive in the minute role of Diana.
Grant DeLong and Arron Scott as Orion's slaves made a delectable pair as they performed a pseudo-Oriental dance that contained takeoffs on East Indian forms. Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein were delightful as a pair of frisky goats. Though their costumes resembled those of the two cats in "Sleeping Beauty," their routine was convincingly goatlike as they pranced about gleefully.
The concluding celebration included three lustrous pas de deux performed by Stella Abrera–David Hallberg as Ceres and Jaseion, Anna Liceica–Isaac Stappas as Persephone and Pluto, and Monique Meunier–Eric Underwood as Terpsichore and Apollo.