American Ballet Theatre's New Sylvia

May 14, 2007

Frederick Ashton’s ballets remain scarce in the repertoires of most American companies. That makes American Ballet Theatre’s U.S. premiere of his full-length Sylvia this month particularly welcome. Believed lost for more than 50 years, the reconstruction opened to enthusiastic reviews last fall at The Royal Ballet as part of its Ashton centenary celebrations.

“It’s Ashton’s Sleeping Beauty,” says ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “It revels in the beauty of the art form.” McKenzie considered mounting his own version until he learned about The Royal’s plans. “It was a happy convergence,” he says. “I’m such a believer that there’s not an original thought in my head.”

ABT, which has had great success with several Ashton works, including La Fille mal gardée and The Dream, has co-produced the revival. Its affinity for Ashton stems from the company’s deep roots in dramatic ballet, says McKenzie. “Balanchine shed the rules of classicism; Ashton was enhancing them,” he notes. “He was a man of the theater in love with the notion of romance—he didn’t need to make it abstract.”

Still, it may take Metropolitan Opera House audiences a little time to adjust to the ballet’s classical Greek setting (in the original 1952 Christopher and Robin Ironside decor, with added elements in Act II by Peter Farmer) and the old-fashioned, pastoral plot. Ashton left intact the mythological narrative of the 1846 original, once a staple at the Paris Opéra Ballet. He also retained most of Léo Delibes’ score, while adding a few passages from the composer’s La Source. The huntress Sylvia, an Amazon follower of the chaste goddess Diana, spurns the love of the handsome Aminta, only to be struck by Eros’ arrow. Kidnapped by the hunter Orion, she yearns for her rejected suitor while feigning interest in her captor. Eventually, the gods deliver her and Aminta to a stirring Act III grand pas de deux.

Christopher Newton, a former dancer with The Royal who, while still a student, appeared in the original production, reassembled the ballet from a faded film of a stage rehearsal and his own fading memories. “There were little bits missing,” he says. “Luckily, Monica Mason [The RB’s artistic director] had danced in the one-act version Ashton made later, so virtually all of Sylvia’s choreography was there. And Donald MacLeary had danced Aminta, so he could coach the boys.” The only change in ABT’s version was the deletion of the second intermission between Ashton’s Acts II and III.

Ashton made Sylvia for Margot Fonteyn as a showcase for her dramatic abilities. “She was so good at portraying different feelings,” says Newton. It’s also a test of any ballerina’s stamina—Sylvia is onstage for 80 percent of the ballet.

“Our girls are up to it,” says ABT principal Marcelo Gomes, who looks forward to dancing both Aminta with soloist Michele Wiles and Orion with principal Gillian Murphy. “I can bring out Aminta’s romantic feelings, but being from Brazil, I have a little pepper in my personality, too, like Orion.” Dancing Ashton has its challenges, however. “They’re very intricate steps,” says Gomes, “and every step has a meaning. It’s an opportunity for a dancer to evolve in one evening, to show through movement a different texture and feeling.”

Newton has no concerns about the company’s ability to master the choreography. “The big challenge will be to absorb the less flamboyant Ashton style, his phrasing, and purity of line, and the way he gets the story told through dance rather than conventional ballet mime. All the dancers have wonderful technique these days—the tricky bit,” he says “will be their interpretation.”                                          –Hanna Rubin

ABT’s production of Sylvia runs in alternating repertoire June 3–15 at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.