The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, London, December 16th matinée, 2017
I hate being a bitch – even when required — but as this matinee wore on and wore me down, all I could think of were bad musicals (especially parodies of them). Sir Fred, who adored the golden years of the silver screen, would have been appalled at the eye I was casting on “his” work. I hope what I write here about my experience of “Sir Frederick Ashton’s” three-act Sylvia will pass under your radar and end up little read. Just as I hope you won’t have the misfortune of seeing the production live.
Remember that scene in The Bandwagon, where “a modern version of Faust” lays a great big egg? This retelling of the Renaissance tale by Tasso, um, doesn’t even add at least some mayonnaise to said egg. Act One proved somewhat bearable and with a bit of charm at first: as with a stuffed bird in an antiques shop, at first you don’t quite notice how it’s about to fall apart in your hands. There’s always Yuhui Choe’s limpid line to follow around with your eye, as she glimmers out from anywhere she is placed in a crowd. Why is she still too often limited to roles such as “one of Sylvia’s eight attendants?”
Christopher Newton’s revisited and re-imagined staging from 2004 seems to have been a labor of love. He threw himself into reviving a ballet of which anybody who had been around in 1952, including Ashton (whose centenary of birth was to be celebrated) — couldn’t quite remember much. But Newton’s disingenuous statements in the program sound like those of a disingenuous shopkeeper: “I have not re-choreographed it, simply embellished what was there. I’d hate anybody to think I’ve got pretensions of being a choreographer. Where there are extra steps they are typical Ashton steps.” Remember the last time you bought an over-restored Leonardo, convinced by the expert certificate?
But before we get to the dance, what was scoured up from the archives of the work of the original designers, Christopher and Robin Ironside, fell flat. “My stars,” as Bugs Bunny would say, the helmets for Diana’s nymphs in Act One are straight out of Bugs on Mars. Orion’s paltry two manservants are dressed like, and given worse steps to do than, the two gangsters in Kiss Me Kate. The best part is the mobile set of the Second Act. It turns out that its de Chirico surrealist charm has nothing to do with the Ironsides at all: the set is a de post facto pastiche « in the style of. »
At least the costume for Vadim Muntagirov’s shepherd Aminta, madly in love with a vestal servant of Diana/Artemis — the titular Sylvia — caused no harm. His softly expansive and expressive body, gentle demeanor, and the light touch of his feet on the floor made all the jolly elderly ladies in the Amphitheatre sigh. Alas, he wasn’t given nearly enough dancing to do. He made yearning gestures, and then progressively got to lift Sylvia up/right/center/hoist her onto his shoulder and sometimes pose her upside down. He got to twirl himself around a bit, did some cabrioles. But while Muntagirov looked lovely and strong, all the steps he had been given simply could not arouse interest. Perhaps intentionally, as the motive for creating this ballet was about highlighting Fonteyn. Yes, her again.
I have my own deeply felt convictions about the role of Sylvia, as gleaned from literature and from the Neumeier version that I got to know in Paris. She must combine unselfconscious charm and femininity with a joyously unconscious killer instinct. For her the hunt is about liberty, the freedom to run through the forest with her virgin sisters. Chickens not allowed, this squad flies higher than that. Girls so fleet of foot and heart that even if they ran carelessly over a nest the eggs wouldn’t crack.
Alas, Natalia Osipova made me think more of a G.I. than of a nymph. And more of a schizophrenic than of a young woman slowly discovering what it feels like to fall in love. The mood shifts are abrupt in the choreography, I’ll grant you that, but this merely led to a lot of grimaces of various shades, visible even when you put down the binoculars. She was originally scheduled to dance with Federico Bonelli, a more macho presence than Muntagirov, and maybe Bonelli might have balanced the heavy earthbound force she kept applying to everything, in spite of ferocious ballon. But as I saw it, only a masochist could have been fascinated by such a creature in the first place. And that makes the story sillier and rather off-putting instead of romantic.
Don’t even talk to me about the meagre leavings of Act Two. Sylvia has been kidnapped by the lascivious Orion and taken to his lair. Orion can only afford to keep two female and two male servants (the Cole Porter gangsters mentioned above) when he owns an entire Mediterranean island? For added value, Orion and his minions get to dance and mime crude sub-Nutcracker “Chine-easy” and Arabic stereotypes. Even a dealer in real antiquities hides the most blatant of his orientalist stash nowadays. The choreography for Act Two was apparently totally lost. I just cannot imagine that even in 1952, Sir Fred would have gone for such a leaden level of stingy (the number of dancers) and tacky (the dances).
And so on to Act Three, where we are served more scrambled eggs instead of a chocolate soufflé. Could this possibly have been intended as an homage to oh so many of the last acts of the Petipa blockbusters? I felt as if I were being forced to stare and – and ooh at — a fake Fabergé egg. In any case, it was exhausting, as the memories fly at you from right and left. Anna Rose O’Sullivan made for a surefooted goat in fussily irritating choreography, and I bet she’s the one who gets typecast as Puss in Boots’s main squeeze every time Sleeping Beauty comes around. Persephone and Pluto were stuck channeling Little Red and the Wolf, etc. (I hate “etcetera” both as a term and as a fact). Sylvia and Aminta get a bit Swan Lake-y. And yada-yada-yada.
Just when you think/hope/pray that this is finally over 1) Orion shows up and his confrontation with Aminta looks like a brief sketch from the early days of World Wide Wrestling . 2) Diana/Artemis makes a so-what fist-shaking cameo, adding about ten minutes to the proceedings. Only then was I finally allowed to leave the premises.
“There was an old man of Thermopylae/Who never did anything properly:/But they said, “If you Choose/to boil eggs in your shoes,/You shall never remain in Thermopylae.” Edward Lear (1812-1888), One Hundred Nonsense Pictures