writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

A Contemporary Renaissance Man

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
April 30, 2004

by Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published May 10, 2004

A dappled luminosity hangs over Mark Morris’ Sylvia like the third act’s gossamer veil that keeps the two lovers apart in ballet’s longest foreplay. It infused the bubbliness of champagne into a frothy saga of a mortal shepherd who falls in love with a semi-mortal nymph. Morris’s lovers—of all kinds—breath the rarefied air of the Forest of Arden and the enchanted woods of Midsummer Night’s Dream. But unlike the Elizabethan who clothed his stories in metaphor, Morris embraces transparency. The result is a shimmering, crystalline ballet that is as romantic as it is contemporary.

Morris coaxed charm and tensile strength out of Delibes’ score that for all its melodic invention, shamelessly borrows from all over the place, endlessly repeats itself and is rhythmically bland. Its patchwork job barely coheres. So Morris had his work cut out for him.

Given its limping narrative, it was a marvel to see how Morris went about smoothing into a libretto with a relatively satisfying trajectory. When he didn’t quite succeed, such as in the second act’s cave scene and in parts of the third act’s celebration, he probably was let down by the music’s sequential (il)logic. He might have been better off deleting or re-arranging some sections. Composers don’t always know what works best for the stage. But these are small quibbles in an otherwise enchanting work.

Morris went about the fashioning of Sylvia the old fashioned way, using tried and true dramatic techniques.

He structured the ballet in terms of contrast as well as continuity. Sylvia is a younger, still soft Diana. One couldn’t help but think of the Giselle/Myrta connection. Her haughty throw of the head, the impatient trembling of her legs, the straightforward trajectory when aiming to shoot all return in Diana in the last act. And of course, both of their self-absorption is brought low by Eros. The similarity between the two women was particularly noticeable in the Yuan Yuan Tan/Muriel Maffre casting. Both of them are tall, long-limbed dancers with Tan bringing an attractive vulnerability, a quality she increasingly is willing to risk, to the part.

Tan and Elizabeth Miner also struck the slight tone of imperiousness which is essential to Sylvia’s authority. Megan Lowe, a petite whirl wind played the role too much like a contemporary teenager. (I did not see Vanessa Zahorian). However, her feathery feet in the Pizzicato solo seemed to take on an exuberance life of their own as she—and we—watched them with delight. There is a ballerina in there.

Miner, a young, but already surprisingly mature dancer, had the most integrated view of the love-struck hunteress; she was particularly affecting as both feisty and fragile in the cave. When Molat shyly touched her dress in the third act, she recoiled just a tad, as if she remembered that first encounter in the woods. Tan’s fragility was more muted but in turn brought much welcome wit to her strategic trickery.

Aminta embodies one kind of love—the idealized that becomes reality, in constrast to Orion’s baser but nonetheless genuine longings. As a character, Aminta is as restlessly searching for his beloved as Orion is in his inarticulate thrashings.

It’s to Morris’ credit that he didn’t make Orion a mere brute—like his minions—but offered human shading despite his hilarious would-be vampire attacks on Sylvia’s throat. When he protects her from his slaves’ pawings, he is guarding his property, but he also is solicitous of her. Orion’s cave, with its huge scalloping draperies (set design by Allen Moyer) had an air of quasi domesticity about it. So when at the act’s end the curtains drop, their folds almost suggest the waves of the sea, at which Sylvia finds herself.

Jean-Francois Vilanoba danced Orion with a kind of slow burn while Yuri Possokhov saw in him genuine desperation that explodes into blind fury. Both of their first tight to the body tour en l’airs suggested a whirling effort to pull themselves together.

The three Amintas, Gonzalo Garcia, Guennadie Nedviguine and Pascal Molat (I did not see Joan Boada) convinced differently. Garcia practically melted in his initial expansive port de bras/rond de jambe combination. And his cabrioles stayed low to the ground, just skimming the forest floor. Morris started the third act’s male variation with the same steps but then expanded into something close to virtuosic dancing. Nedviguine is a reserved, technically excellent dancer--exquisite ballon, clean beats and the softest of landing--who came alive in the variation. But he is not a dancer who projects a lot and was also not that well matched with Lowe.

The elegant Molat—paired with Miner—brought a burning ardency and almost trembling intensity to the role even though he held back just a little bit as if he wanted to make sure not to gild the lily. Molat also showed some of the most crystalline gargouillades seen around here in very long time.

The male variation, beautifully timed and structurally quite traditional, seemed to be the ballet’s highpoint. Though Morris retained the work’s original title, the emotionally juicest role is Aminta’s, much as it was in Torquato Tasso’s original play Aminta. Aminta grows more fully than Sylvia. When he hangs on to that scarf his exuberance—Molat simply nailed that part—had that tinge of desperation of knowing that you are almost at your goal but also aware that the prize might escape you yet. Sylvia—Miner especially—is more playful, even coy in that moment. Morris’ Sylvia, charming, flirtatious didn’t really get to that level of humanity. So Lowe fixed smile may not have been that inappropriate.

Fusing the roles of the Magician, Eros and the Pirate into one part, was another of Morris’ brilliant moves to make for textual connection. All three of them are life-giving figures—Eros makes the lovers, the Magician resurrects Aminta and the Pirate “resurrects” Sylvia by returning her—not to the woods where she no longer belongs—but to “civilization.” Handsome, with a boyish face and just a touch of the maverick and lovely legs—generously displayed through the skirt-lifting pas de chats and pirouettes—Jaime Garcia Castilla was pure eye candy. The roles were also effectively danced by Garrett Anderson and James Sofranko.

Clear divisions and relationships also shape Morris’ woodland inhabitants. A sense of anticipatory tingling eroticism, much of it called up by the women’s trembling pointe work, perfumes these woodlands. Among the sylvans, the bourrées by the Dryads’ (woodland nymphs) resembled those of scurrying sandpipers while the Naiads (water nymphs) emerged from their waterfall with bourrées that alternated with stalking on point as if trying out the sand under their feet. If the female Sylvans are all trembling elevation, the Satyrs’ leaps and rolly polly floorwork offer grounding. All of them—as do the villagers—repeatedly pay obeiance to Eros, except for Sylvia’s companions who send kicks in his direction.

Sylvia’s nymphs stride in with a loping quasi-drill team precision, all right angles and straight lines. Their’s is a calm, completely self-contained all-female world. In one of the ballet’s loveliest section, in the Slow Waltz, Morris has Sylvia on a swing, while her reposing companions undo each other’s hair. As Sylvia’s friend (Leslie Young) starts a manege, the women send her on her way with a swiping arm gesture which—in a little Morris joke—recall a jockey’s egging on of his horse. But they also suggest splashing in the water next to the Naiads’ waterfall.

Morris made wonderful use of gestural language throughout the ballet. Some of it was traditional mime, some of it of his own invention. The hands to the ear at the calling of the hunting horns became an almost comic aside, as if Morris was trying to tell us to listen to what we could not miss even if we tried to. Much of that signed language was so clear you could just about hear its verbal equivalent ; the “darn it” fist into the hand by Sylvia, later to be repeated by Diana, or Orion’s “I am so mad” shaking arms.

Two extended gestural passages stood out. In act one the Magician runs his hand down the “dead” Aminta’s thighs and legs. Aminta awakens, turns and curls his arm around the Magician’s neck. The gesture is repeated by Orion and the swooned Sylvia in Orion’s cave. In the last act’s Vision scene it returns once more, though now it’s done by Diana, and she runs her hand up Endymion’s leg. This caress ends not outside but inside the body.

The second occurred in the last act. When Sylvia finally dropped her veil, the lovers first touch with the tips of their fingers that slide open into flattened palms and into arms that sensuously curl around each other. It was a gesture that seemed to recapitulate a ballet about two lovers whose every so frail first encounter leads to a joyous intertwining.

Photo:  Pascal Molat as Aminta and Liz Miner as Sylvia (photo courtesy of SF Ballet)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 17
May 10, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




Back Issues

Index of Reviews
Back Issues
About Us
Contact Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs



Rita Felciano
Alison Garcia
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish


This site is the online supplement to DanceView, a quarterly review of dance published since 1979.

DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!


Copyright ©2003 by by DanceView
last updated on May 3, 2004 -->