Alexander Campbell, Nao Sakuma, Chi Cao, Robert Parker, Elisha Willis, Kit Holder, James Barton, Laetitia Lo Sardo, Carol-Anne Millar, Momoko Hirata, Lei Zhao, Imogen-Lily Ash, Dylan Price
The London Coliseum’s 2009 spring dance season seems to have been inundated with ballets that, though musically superlative, possess what can only be described as downright silly plots.
Two weeks ago the American Ballet Theatre performed the swashbuckling Le Corsaire, and now the second production from Birmingham Royal Ballet (which presented Pomp and Circumstances earlier in the week) is the almost as laughable Sylvia.
And yet both productions hit the mark, albeit for totally different reasons. Whilst Le Corsaire was played straight down the board but carried off by the world class dancing on offer, now Sylvia prevails by being presented in a highly innovative fashion.
Written by Leo Delibes in 1876, the ballet normally presents a simple mythological story concerning Eros, Orion and Diana. In this production, however, choreographed by David Bintley in 1993 but extensively revised for 2009, a degree of societal wherewithal is applied to the essential fairytale. This makes the characters more human, the points about relationships more relevant, and ultimately the ballet more interesting to watch.
In this way, the opening scene sees Count Guiccioli (who later becomes Orion) throwing a summer party complete with marquee and colourful guests, including two camp skinheads who dance entertainingly. The Count’s drunken lechery is thus presented believably in the context of the booze-up that is his anniversary party.
On witnessing the Count’s infidelities, the god Eros (disguised as a gardener) sends the Count and Contessa, and their servants, Sylvia and Amynta, into a dream world (the mythical realm where the ballet normally takes place anyway) to teach them a lesson or two in love. From here on in a story unfolds concerning Diana (played by the Contessa) and her nymphs, the kidnapping of Sylvia by Orion, and the final union of Sylvia and Amynta.
After such a promising opening, the second scene of Act One felt comparatively conservative, set within the realm of nature as it always is. It did, however, feature superb performances from Elisha Willis as Diana, and the corps de ballet as the nymphs. In Act Two we witnessed a brilliant turn from Robert Parker as Orion, a large imposing figure who nevertheless demonstrated incredible agility. This scene in which Sylvia, held hostage, gets him drunk also saw priceless turns from Kit Holder and James Barton who played the skinheads at the start. Now dressed as forest-dwellers, they lifted and rotated each other through 360 degrees in a routine that was highly amusing because it was so slickly delivered.
Innovations were also apparent in Act Three as pirates with a spring in their step appeared, led by their king (Alexander Campbell’s Eros, in disguise once more) who danced impressively with a wooden leg! Such colourful antics, however, were not to the detriment of strong ballet and in this final act we witnessed, in a series of solos and pas de deuxs, superlative dancing from Nao Sakuma as Sylvia and Chi Cao as Amynta. These were aided by Bintley’s decision to include music (such as Delibes’ La Source) that is not in the original ballet, but feels entirely in keeping with it.
The set and costume designs of Susan Blane (responsible for the original stage and film versions of The Rocky Horror Show) also contributed to the overall concept, quietly handing the ballet a 1950s Italian feel. The dancing was also ably supported by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under the baton of Paul Murphy, in the pit.
After such an inspiring performance, I was left wondering if I would rather see a conservative production of Le Corsaire, but danced to the standard that only American Ballet Theatre could deliver, or this production of Sylvia that in its concept was revelatory, even revolutionary. And my only conclusion was that happily, since both were there to be enjoyed at the Coliseum, no-one really needed to choose between the two.
Read the musicOMH review of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Pomp and Circumstances.