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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Who is Sylvia, What is She?

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

by Paul Parish
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Parish
published May 11, 2004

The most striking thing about Mark Morris's first three-act classical ballet, Sylvia, which had its debut Friday April 30 at San Francisco's Opera House and ran for the next 10 days with four different casts, is that the production succeeds at the profoundest level in bringing back the Opera House ballet. It is a costumed fantasy-tale (beguiling Grecian tunics, mostly, by Martin Pakledinaz), fringed with scenery (handsome glades, grottoes, and Acropolis by Allen Moyer) which will transform at the entrance of the harp into some enchanted world that's twice as wonderful as what came before—apt décor in which to set a story full of creatures that never were on land or sea but move with such convincing and superhuman grace that the very evidence of your eyes makes you give them credence and lets you toy with suspending your disbelief. Morris has brought back fauns, dryads, nymphs, votaresses of Diana, the heart-sick Anacreontic shepherd, all the bric-a-brac of the Ovidian world as if it were the first dawn of interest in such things: "what men or gods are these? What maidens loath? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"

Morris has moreover embraced this project with such sympathy for the conventions, such a delight in the game itself, and such a whole-hearted response to the music of Leo Delibes, that he accomplishes a feat like Shakespeare did. He brings the old things back in new ways, so that you recognize mythological creatures as they were in Homer or Ovid, and at the same time you see they have a life of their own all over again that's not derivative but original. And also like Shakespeare, in so doing he's created his audience, fusing a crowd made up of the aristocracy and the groundling, of scholars who could recite the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and computer scientists who don't recognize the name of Keats (author of that Ode, a name once known in all educated households but not any more), into a group of people who respond with delight and understanding to the kind of playful beauty this ballet presents.

Of Morris's opera-house ballets, Sylvia is a tragicomedy, more like the preposterous Platée than it is either Dido or l'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, simply because the scores are similarly full of irony and a serious situation can suddenly sublimate into divine silliness. Both Sylvia and Platée were written as entertainments of state—Platée for the wedding of the Dauphin, Sylvia for the grand opening of the Palais Garnier (the magnificent Paris Opera House, jewel of the redesign of Paris by Baron Haussman, a building whose unveiling was so important an event it s construction was concealed behind a wall which was removed in ceremonies timed to the first presentation of the ballet Morris has re-choreographed and indeed brought back to life)—both Platée and Sylvia share that self-effacing tone which belongs to the court masque. The audience is constantly reminded that this is a fiction, and the pleasure in it comes from the pleasure of toying with ideas. Sylvia herself is not a woman you believe in, like Juliet, but one it's FUN to believe in, for the nonce. "Tush," as Sir Philip Sidney said of a similar creation, "tis a poesie and no divinitie." The story is one of those fictions like Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, in which the trajectories of many lives interlace like a freeway exchange and the raveling and unraveling is more compelling than any of its characters, whose main duty is to be lovable (or threaten the lovable).

Some stories are triangles—Sylvia's is a pentagon, made up of two gods, Diana and Eros (who oppose each other like positive and negative electrodes), and three mortals. Our girl is a young archer, pled in chastity to Diana, mistress of the hunt: Sylvia is unaware that two men are in love with her: the shepherd Aminta, devoted to Eros, and the giant hunter Orion, who will abduct her and try to imprison her in his cave.

THere is no getting around the plot—here it is, in Morris's own words:

Act I In a Forest

Under a full moon, Sylvans revel and flirt.
Aminta arrives looking for the nymph that he once glimpsed bathing in a stream.
The Nymphs of Diana enter and, tired from hunting, rest and refresh themselves.
Aminta hides. He recognizes Sylvia as his beloved.
Orion happens by and sees Sylvia, the object of his desire.
Aminta is discovered spying on the Nymphs.
He is brought before Sylvia who takes aim to kill him.
Instead, she fires her arrow at the statue of Eros.
Aminta is struck dead as he leaps to defend the god of love.
Eros himself appears and pierces Sylvia with his golden arrow.
At dawn, Villagers pay homage to Eros on their way to harvest.
Sylvia feels compelled to see Aminta once more.
Orion kidnaps her.
A lone villager finds the corpse of Aminta and calls for help.
A sorcerer appears and brings Aminta back to life.
The sorcerer reveals himself as Eros.
Aminta goes off in search of Sylvia.

Act II In a Cave

Orion arrives with the unconscious Sylvia.
He disarms her and attempts to woo her.
She awakens and realizes that there is no possibility of escape.
Orion's slaves present a banquet for their guest.
Sylvia teaches the slaves to make fresh wine.
She impersonates a Bacchante and drives them all to drink.
Drunk and lustful, Orion and his slaves fall into a stupor.
Sylvia invokes Eros. Desperate to escape, she dedicates herself to him.
The god appears and releases her from captivity.
Aminta, forlorn, waits.

Act III By the Sea

A Bacchanale is underway.
Aminta still has hopes of seeing Sylvia again.
A pirate arrives with a shipload of slave women.
Aminta is irresistibly drawn to one of them.
She is Sylvia in disguise. They are in love.
Orion interrupts the festival and challenges Aminta over Sylvia.
Sylvia runs to hide behind a statue of Diana.
Orion tries to destroy the statue but is thwarted by a sudden storm.
Diana herself appears and slays Orion.
She is angry at Sylvia for betraying her vows and threatens to kill the two.
The pirate pleads clemency for the young couple.
He reminds Diana of her own indiscretion.
In a vision, Diana is seen seducing the mortal Endymion.
The pirate reveals himself as Eros. Diana relents.
Diana and Eros bless the union of Aminta and Sylvia.


But how serious can a story be that starts in a glade sacred to Diana that has a statue of Eros down stage right?

Morris has altered very little the libretto, based on Tasso's pastoral poem Aminta, which Delibes turned into such delectable music, transparently witty in its allusions to Wagner. Sylvia's music echoes Brunnhilde's, and she is herself a young athlete—when we first see Sylvia, from the back with her arms widespread like the wings of the Nike of Samothrace, she is standing in a virginal sous-sus, legs crossed tightly beneath her—she stands like a spear stuck into the ground, or an exclamation point with wings. But she will not become a "heavy" character like Brunhilde, simultaneously a tragic heroine and a realistically observed, thrillingly complex woman. Sylvia is more like Spenser's Britomart, from Book 3 of the Faerie Queene: an allegory of coming of age. The arrow of Eros that strikes her heart is like the hormonal changes that destroy childish certainty in all of us, that bring on the vulnerability and confusion of adolescence—but this story is told in such a register that it remains, even in the dark second act, when she rejects brutal sexuality and through her wits escapes, an idea about integrating sex and love, and one we'd rather see spared the harrowing aspects of heroism.

Indeed, the act of closing her thighs is an intensely characteristic image from the ballet for melike Nijinska's gamine figure in blue from Les Biches, who closes in sous-sus when other ballerinas would open to arabesque, Sylvia asserts her virginity again and againeven in the her variation (the marvelous "Pizzicato Polka") last act's grand pas de deuxby her stepping into retire-passé and closing sous-sus.

But it is not the only onein the pas de deux she opens into heavenly shapes one like a chalice, in effacée in fondu on pointe, falling back into Aminta's arms, with her own arms open in Blasis' beautiful position "a lyre"a heavenly, womanly, rapturous image of a person in love.

The real test of a ballet for me is how it alters the way I see and feel, and Sylvia has not only shown me again the beauty of the world I live in, the ballet itself has gotten into the way I move and even into my dreams. Morris has characterized his heroinea votaress of Dianawith a glorious way of running, like the child's in Pather Panchali, but slowed down enough so we can really see it. This run is as specific as Ulanova's in Romeo and Juliet, and as thrilling, though with no element of desperation in itthe breast-bone is lifted nobly but without urgency, the head carried high, the shoulders square but low, and the legs reach in long stridesit is a circular gait like a horse's, the feet reach out in front like hooves, toe pointed, and kick up to the back. I've been DOING Sylvia's long-loping run, on the sidewalkI taught it to a poet last night, who makes it look too much like a cakewalk but can do it for BLOCKS....

This run is a human version of Morris' dance for the Dryads who first rushed into the glade and set the tone for the balletthey run on pointe, tossing themselves forward with darting steps that look like dragon-flies running on water. Sylvia and her band of huntresses do go through their feet, they put the heels downwhich makes them look human, but verging on the demi-godly. Throughout the ballet, Morris has come up with movement that creates communitythe "world" is believable because each group of creatures has its local habitation and its characteristic gait

This makes Sylvia theatrically convincing and unmisunderstandable: the first act is idyllic, the second darkly comic, the third brilliantly classical. Fauns, dryads, nymphs, shepherds, the quasi-Cyclopean hunter who abducts Sylvia and imprisons her in his cave in the second acteach breed has its own stance, tempo, undulation, (some of it brilliant, some of it grotesquethe drunken oafs in act 2 take two steps forward, one step back, which is proverbially how drunks move). It is always appropriate to advancing the mood and the action.

Morris's invention is remarkable throughout; the scenes that most require mention are the huntresses idyll, the whole second act, and the brilliant finale.

The ballet first wins your heart in the first act, when the huntresses relax the girls undo each other's hair and waltz while Sylvia sits in a pastoral swing straight out of a Watteau. Sherri LeBlanc, Leslie Young, Courtney Elizabeth, and Sarah van Patten danced with such a feel for the music I was in awe; Leblanc in particular was so moving so gloriously I could barely contain myself.

Act 2 takes place underground, in Orion's cave, and is a fantastic example of Morris's ability to steal from the giants among his predecessors while remaining most recognizably himself. Orion has kidnapped Sylvia and brought her to his cave. Sylvia's plan to get him drunk and get out somehow echoes Odysseus's escape from Polyphemus, but also the second act of A Folk Tale, while the oafish gait of Orion and his slaves looks fascinatingly like the goons from Balanchine's Prodigal Sonbut the funniest parts are a steal from Lucille Ball's famous drunken act, the episode where Lucy's in the grape vat trampling, and her eyes, face, and undulating torso register simultaneously the squeegee underfoot and her imagination getting drunk….

The last act puts the show over the top. Set in a bright white world, with four statues across the back above a broad low staircase, it begins to a trumpet fanfare with a stingingly smart dance for two sentinels, strong, articulate, witty, and somehow even more appropriate to the music than anything that's gone before. This grows into a pas de seize that crosses and criss-crosses the stage, ending with catches that echo a figure from Act I. Aminta enters, dejected, but gains hope when a ship glides up-river (behind the stairs) displaying seductively veiled women.

Morris has made the grand pas de deux a dance with a veil, since Sylvia is supposedly the captive of this Arab slaver (Eros in disguise). Thus Morris delays the moment when Aminta recognizes Sylvia for certain, and makes it a turning-point in the drama but not yet the climax of the dance, so all the piqué ballonnées, the sissonnes to pointe, the pas de bourrées of her variation are performed while two slave-girls hold a veil over Aminta's face. Morris evokes, even salutes, the veiled pas in La Bayadere and Ashton's Thais (indeed there are images from Ashton throughout, especially the attitude tilted sideways from Symphonic Variations, and the gesture where the ballerina's arm curls back round her partner's head earlier in the ballet.) The ballerina is extremely exposed, "placed," diamantinethe geometry is never blurred or smudged. But no-one who saw it will ever forget the veil slipping like hope itself through Amintas' fingers.

Of the five performances I saw, Liz Miner's stood out as the clearest, the most beautifully phrased and intelligible. Her timing, and her whole way of dancing, with her floating balances, accurate épaulement, lovely head positions, the breast-bone lifted nobly like a shield, brought out an Ashtonesque classicism. Her partner, Pascal Molat, brought a French elegance to his virtuosity, with a highly expressive use of his upper body that made him tender; though Guennadi Nedviguine, in another cast, danced it more simply, and to my mind with even more feeling.

Miner was also was the only one who made it understandable how a strong girl with a bow and arrow could fail to fight off her abductorthe others just collapsed, for some reason. But Miner made you remember that she had entered the scene because of Aminta, whose dead body is still warm on the ground. Orion interrupts her during the first access of romantic feelings ever to disturb her peace of mind, and she is still in the grip of her emotion for Aminta as Orion overwhelms her and carries her off. Both Pierre-Francois Villanoba and Yuri Possokhov made powerful Orions; the former was dangerous, exciting, a hot, sexy animal (like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, but not so self-aware), the latter more brutish until liquor made him sweet, but then he was like a drunk in a Chagall painting, strangely adorable.

Megan Low (another corps dancer) danced Sylvia less brilliantly than others, but conveyed the character of Sylvia from a very deep place. Yuan YuanTan, Sylvia opening night, brought a heroic, potentially tragic physicality to the role that was thrilling but lacked some quality necessary to make the transitions from tragic to comic convincing.

The angry entrance of Diana, complete with thunder machine and a sudden darkening of the stage, made a stunning coup de theatre just before the end of the ballet. Both Muriel Maffre and Lorena Feijoo were up to the job. In fact Diana pretty much wrecked the joint, until the Arab (Eros in disguise) produced a visionlike photographs in courtof Diana in dalliance with Endymion long, long ago. Indeed as cameos go, Matthew Stewart's as Endymion may be thought by some to have upstaged even Diana's, as his gleaming marble buns came into view. Case closed.

Jaime Garcia Castillo (as Eros) outdid anything: performing classical steps in such a fascinatingly distorted manner—brisés at hip, height, closing just in the nick of time), andemphasizing the hip-contractions that would occasionally initiate a shimmering roll through his torso, he achieved an uncanniness that made me feel I had actually seen something god-like. For me he stole the show.

First: Liz Miner as Sylvia in Orion's cave. (photo courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)
Second: Muriel Maffre as Diana in Mark Morris' Sylvia. Photo: Andrea Flores.

" Who is Sylvia? What is she,
That all our swains commend her?"—Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 17
May 11, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish




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