An Admirable Restoration
Here is the high point of the Royal Ballet’s Ashton 100 celebrations: the revival, after a ludicrous 39 year gap, of Sir Fred’s three-act “Sylvia”. (Don’t worry about American Ballet Theatre’s two-act announcement—we’ll get to that later but you are not being deprived.) This is a ballet that really needed to be preserved, and yes, the revival has been admirably done.
I missed the actual world premiere at Covent Garden on September 3, 1952—busy watching visiting companies (New York City Ballet and the Marquis de Cuevas’s Grand Ballet) at the Edinburgh Festival. But I rushed to catch up as soon as I got home, and there was ample opportunity: it had 26 performances, with three casts, in its first four months and was then repeated in London every single year—which is pretty unusua—until 1959. I went as often as I could.
What I saw—and still see in this faithful revival—is a ballet that preserves the spirit of French 19th century romanticism but in a modern way. In this it happily foreshadows two further Ashton masterworks, “La Fille mal gardée” and “The Two Pigeons”. They are stronger dramatically, but “Sylvia” has the edge musically. First and foremost, it was Delibes’s score that attracted Ashton to “Sylvia”. This music, remember, had so impressed Tchaikovsky that he said he felt shame for his own “Swan Lake” compared with its charm, elegance, rich melody, rhythm and harmony. Delibes’s earlier “Coppelia” perhaps had even more wonderful tunes, but in “Sylvia” he (like Tchaikovsky) combined the qualities of dance with those of symphonic music. This score also has an expressiveness that insists what the story-line must be. Good choreographers such as John Neumeier in Paris and David Bintley in Birmingham have (for me) come to grief trying to update “Sylvia”.
Ashton kept close to the original 1876 plot. It is surprisingly similar to that of “Daphnis and Chloe”—innocent heroine is captured by a lecherous villain, saved by a god and restored to her lover—but in this instance you get a little complication at the beginning: vowed to chastity as a follower of the goddess Diana, Sylvia spurns her admirer Aminta until Eros shoots her with his arrow. Also, their final union is impeded by Diana until Eros reminds her of her own lapse from chastity with Endymion.
The choreography tells this story with almost no mime, letting the dances reveal the characters, their relationships and what happens to them. And what a lot of absolutely glorious dances there are, not only for the principals but for a constantly active corps de ballet. Act 1 (in a moonlit glade with Eros’s shrine) does best in this respect, with an amazing number of dazzling entries for the large ensemble. Sylvia and her eight companions cut swiftly across and around the stage, their jetés as distinctive as the long-bows they flourish, but the groups of naiads and dryads, sylvans, fauns and rustics are all kept busy too. We also meet the villainous hunter Orion, who manages at the end to seize Sylvia and carry her off.
In Act 2, by contrast, just six dancers carry the action, with Sylvia trapped in Orion’s cave. Neither the humour nor the brilliance entirely match yet what I remember from the original cast of Orion’s slaves: more work—or do I mean stronger casting?—needed here. Sylvia has a seductive dance to persuade her captors to drink themselves into a stupor. (At this point the synopsis used to have a wonderful line explaining her behavious as “a ruse to delay the odium of more intimate endearments”.)
At the end, Eros carries her off—and this episode is now much improved, as I’ll explain in a moment. But the result, as before, is her arrival for Act 3 at Diana’s surprisingly grandiose temple where, in brief dramatic confrontations, Orion is shot by Diana, and a crucial vision conjured up by Eros persuades Diana to withdraw her opposition to the lovers’ marriage. Then, after solos for Aminta (a bit feeble) and Sylvia (the famous pizzicati) we have possibly the most perfect adagio display duet imaginable—one that has reminded many people of Petipa at his best.
All this has been faithfully revived by Christopher Newton from memories, notes and bits of film. A former dancer with the Royal Ballet and later successively notator, répétiteur, ballet master and artistic coordinator, it was his persistence, energy and devotion (I’m quoting the programme note of Royal Ballet director Monica Mason) that were responsible for bringing the ballet back to life. But how, you might wonder, did it ever vanish? I think I can explain. After being done so much all through the 1950s, it deserved a rest. Moreover, it wasn’t easy for other leading women to vie with Margot Fonteyn in a role that showed all her qualities: passion and pathos, fierce imperiousness and tenderness, womanliness and bravura. As Clive Barnes wrote, reviewing the premiere in Dance & Dancers, “the range of her dancing is unequalled, the heart-splitting significance she can give to a simple movement unsurpassed.”
However, in 1963, while the Royal Ballet was touring America, its smaller sister company was allowed to dance “Sylvia” at Covent Garden (NYCB principal Melissa Hayden appeared as guest at two performances, partnered by Flemming Flindt), and likewise in 1965. But by then Ashton wanted to make changes. He thought the ballet was too long (a constant plaint of his) and announced a two-act version. He omitted some of the less relevant (and less interesting) divertissements which he had initially put in to bulk out Act 3, using music from Delibes’s first ballet, “La Source”. His intention then was to omit the second interval and run Acts 2 and 3 together, but unfortunately the quick transformation proved impracticable. A work to rule was blamed for this but Ashton spoke later of the Opera House’s refusal to find the cost of changing the Act 2 scenery. Consequently Ashton was persuaded in 1967 to prepare instead a one-act version—the only time since 1959 that the large company tackled Sylvia until now.
The whole of Act 2 vanished; so did the character of Orion and most of the plot, together with almost half the music. We were left with a long, broken-backed divertissement. Disaster: we all hated it, including Ashton, and that’s how the ballet got lost. Might we eventually have got the two-act version if Ashton hadn’t been pushed out of being artistic director? Who can tell? But in fact restoring “Sylvia” had to wait until now.
We nearly got it sooner. Ashton often protested that he didn’t want his works saved, but his actions showed otherwise, and after Christopher Newton had worked on the revival of “Ondine” Sir Fred suggested they should go on and tackle “Sylvia”. Sadly his death prevented that, but by then they had already talked about what changes he would like, chiefly to Act 2, and now Mr Newton has achieved them. As it happens, although the sumptuous, Second Empire style, original designs by Robin and Christopher Ironside (brothers, painters and designers) for Acts 1 and 3 were available, only black and white photographs of Act 2 were found, so designer Peter Farmer was brought in to do a new treatment, preserving their manner but permitting the more dramatic transformation Sir Fred had long wanted, with Eros carrying Sylvia off in a boat. The costume designs had gone missing but luckily Elaine Garlick, costume supervisor, eventually uncovered them in a mislabeled box.
As for the dancing, we are often told that dancers are much stronger today than fifty years ago, but among the principals on the first two nights, only Thiago Soares as the villain Orion truly shone: personality, acting, partnering and dancing all great. Zenaida Yanowsky (second cast) is not a new Fonteyn but she gets nearer to the role than Darcey Bussell, who would look better if she concentrated more on neat footwork and spent less energy raising her legs so high.
The movement altogether is so fluent, so detailed, so full of invention, that the dancers are hard put to get through without breaking its flow into shorter phrases. But simply trying will surely bring benefits. So far the corps de ballet are responding best, even quite jubilantly to Ashton’s complex manoeuvres, his demand for quicker, more intricate footwork than the Royal dancers have lately been used to, coupled with the flexible use he wanted of the upper body.
And so the repertoire is enriched by another highly enjoyable three-act ballet, and one that tells its old-fashioned story in a very modern way, full of dancing. Incidentally, I am assured that American Ballet Theatre will do the ballet in full, although they are hoping to manage without the second intermission. If they succeed, perhaps they could explain how to the Royal Ballet, which announces a 25 minute break at that point and actually takes 30 minutes—which is half as long again as Act 2 takes to perform.
2, No. 42