Ako Kondo in Sylvia. Pic: Jeff Busby.

Dance, Reviews, Stage

Sylvia review (The Australian Ballet)

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Many have praised Leo Delibes’ dramatic score for Sylvia – Tchaikovsky loved it – but no choreographer has quite got the story right. The tale of a warrior nymph who falls for a shepherd after being struck by Cupid’s arrow has been re-worked by the likes of John Neumeier, Mark Morris and Frederick Ashton (most famously with Margot Fonteyn).   

Now choreographer Stanton Welch, the former Australian Ballet dancer and long-time head of Houston Ballet, throws everything at it in this new AB co-production.  

He’s thrown in the stories of the formidable goddess Artemis (in love with Orion but fighting with her twin Apollo) and of the curious Psyche falling for and loosing Eros, plus a load of other top gods, demi-gods, nymphs, fawns and country mortals. It’s all fabulously costumed and staged but, in the first part at least, a dramaturgical nightmare.

Armies of women, trimly helmeted and leather-bound, strut in, then leave almost as quickly, mock arrows fly and unconvincing swords bang together, while the leads pantomime their way through a plot leaving no room for choreographic reflection. We mortals in the audience can only regret we didn’t further study the long program notes, to go with the colour-coded costumes – white and a gorgeous pink and blue – for each of the three gutsy heroines and their various squeezes.  

It’s hard at first to have empathy for quickly sketched choreography danced by characters we barely know. Ako Kondo’s delightfully cheeky and tenacious Sylvia and the lowly shepherd (Kevin Jackson) she’s snatching, are early exceptions. And even through this mishmash of narratives, Welch shows his good eye for wit in movement, in the characters of Sylvia and Psyche, and those four leaping, horned fawns.

It’s all fabulously costumed and staged but, in the first part at least, a dramaturgical nightmare.

Jerome Kaplan’s design shifts from the depths of Hades, to caves and pastoral countryside, to the heights of Zeus on Olympus, all beautifully etched in painterly projections by America’s Wendall Harrington. Kaplan’s costumes inventively draw on both a sleek modernity and a diaphanous ancient Greece, and are delightfully detailed, from Zeus in gold to the evil water demons with their long-arched tails. 

Interestingly, Kaplan distinguished himself as the designer of AB’s recent Spartacus, another ancient military story but this one a distinctly male tale (and with much better fighting!).

The dramatic focus and choreographic invention of Sylvia sharpens in the next two shorter acts. Benedicte Bemet’s affecting, impetuous Psyche has really the best story to tell and Marcus Morelli is outstanding as the object of her desire, a leaping heart-felt Eros. Her death when she disobeys Proserpina in Hades, and subsequent revival by Artemis, are engaging moments of drama, wit and dance. 

Welch shows he can also move crowds with the subsequent spirited, courtly celebration of Psyche and Eros’ love on Olympus, as Delibes’ fast-shifting, melodious score at this point turns toe-tapping. Nicolette Fraillon and her Opera Australia Orchestra skip confidently through these rhythmic shifts.

As Artemis and Orion, Robyn Hendricks and Adam Bull have less to do – except lead her interminable army – and their pas de deux reflects their more stately roles as Olympic lovers.

By contrast, in some tender showmanship, we see Sylvia and her shepherd retire to a simple life and sire further generations as he, a human, ages into the Old Shepherd: a guest role played by the AB’s retiring artistic director David McAllister. It’s a moving choreographic sequence.   

Kondo and Jackson necessarily provide a thread through all this Olympian tapestry and their repeated dances together, to Delibes’ now familiar leitmotif for the lovers, is a choreographic highpoint of Sylvia. Kondo’s ongoing turns and arching as she’s held high are masterful.

But it’s the opulent design and staging of Sylvia which sustains a choreography which is often predictable and generalised, cramped by so many distracting pulls on our focus.

Of course, it’s the perfect time to celebrate assertive women – and in ballet no less! But these three Greek mythical figures trail between them such a huge baggage of wonderful stories, there’s a need for scissors and a dramaturg.  

Sylvia plays the Sydney Opera House until November 23.
Tickets: $37-$285, australianballet.com.au

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