Greek Geek it Out

4 Mar

It has to be said; I’ve yet to see a Frederick Ashton ballet I wasn’t completely in love with.  Hence, I am giddy with excitement for the DVD release of Ondine (scheduled for April 1st, the day before my birthday!) with Miyako Yoshida in the title role and Edward Watson as Palemon.  However, my latest Ashton adventure has been a viewing of Sylvia, with Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle.  While I’ve seen clips of both, this is the first full length work I’ve seen them perform in.  I like Bussell a lot; her dancing is so pure and regal.  An elegant ballerina is far from an original concept but Bussell pulls it off with a certain modesty that sets her apart.  And when it comes to Bolle <insert collective dreamy sigh> I get it.  Handsome face with a ridiculously favorable bone structure, tall, long limbed but not gangly and immense amounts of talent for dancing.  Ladies and gentlemen all over the world are utterly enchanted by him; one YouTube user claims that he’s the reincarnation of a Greek god, which is quite an artistic tribute (although Antinous was technically not a god and the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who had a thing for Antinous deified him after his mysterious death.  Take from that what you will!).

Classical mythology is of course perfectly suited for a discussion on Sylvia, since that’s what the story is grounded in.  Unfortunately Sylvia, while loosely based on Torquato Tasso’s play Aminta, doesn’t have much of a plot or substantial character development (I intended to read the play for further insight—didn’t happen).  So the story is very simple and requires no in-depth analysis of the program notes.  Man loves warrior nymph, warrior nymph denounces love.  Warrior nymph kills man, and Eros god of love intervenes. Hunter man kidnaps warrior nymph who now loves man, Warrior nymph gets hunter man drunk, Eros intervenes again.  Lovers reunite, hunter man killed by Diana, Diana about to kill man but Eros intervenes (see a theme?).  The end.  Ashton did his best to flesh out the story a bit but it’s not a riveting plot.  I was interested though, in how at the very beginning when Aminta is in love with Sylvia but she refutes his advances, she shows her disdain in the lifts.  Even though Aminta is the one to lift her, it’s as though she commands him and yet the hunter Orion barely has to touch her and she wilts like a flower.  Aminta does have a transformation (being resurrected by a god will do that to you) and shows more vitality in the end, which was in my opinion, the only significant growth in any character (I wouldn’t count Sylvia because being shot by an arrow of love doesn’t really prove anything).  Weak plot and characters aside, the magic of the ballet is in the score and Ashton’s delightful choreography.  Léo Delibes’s score is effervescent and incredibly difficult as well.  The grand pas de deux between Aminta and Sylvia in Act III sounds like it’s from a violin concerto.

As for Ashton’s choreography…it is of course brilliant.  I’ve mentioned before that Ashton is a genius when it comes to staging dances with props, which aren’t added just for the sake of theatrics but are at times used in cleverly aesthetic ways.  Sylvia has a following of nymphs carrying large bows which are obviously cumbersome and not only do they have to dance with them in hand they have to pull on the strings at certain moments which creates more interesting shapes and lines, in addition to the curvature of the bow itself.  Sylvia is given a dinkier bow, since she has bigger movements to do but the nymphs have considerable dancing to do as well, including a brief moment of fouettés in unison.  Unison fouettés always strikes me as a little too “dance team,” but I love Ashton’s work so I’ll let him get away with it.  I do believe dance team is an American innovation anyway, so I can take comfort in knowing there’s virtually no connection there.  Choreographic intent makes the difference here.  Apologies for harping on dance team a bit…but if you know me you know I firmly believe you can mix business with pleasure but I prefer to keep my art and competition separate.

Another signature of Ashton is to personify animals through dance which he does during a bacchanal (a festival in honor of Bacchus, Roman god of wine) at the Temple of Diana, with two dancers as goats (if it’s a proper bacchanal, little do they know they’re going to be sacrificed at some point during the festivities).  Ashton of course had a wonderful sense of humor, especially to have Sylvia and Aminta perform their virtuosic variations, followed by this pair of dancing goats (you know that joke you do with fortune cookies where you add “in bed” to the end of every fortune?  Try adding “in bed with a goat.”  It makes everything so much funnier).  The goats have quirky, playful movements which are much less literal then the chickens in La Fille, but you can’t help but smile when watching the goat pas de deux.

As for the variations and pas de deux, Bussell showed crisp, clean lines and superb control.  One of the things I love about Ashton choreography is the way he uses smaller steps and movements which don’t always look like the most difficult, even though they often are.  In a lot of other classical variations you’ll typically see ballerinas indulging in huge extensions, big leg kicks, multiple pirouettes or impressive leaps, while in Ashton’s variation for Sylvia you don’t really see any of that.  There’s a lot of little steps and jumps that are perfectly suited to the pizzicato melody played by the strings, which really gives you a sense that Ashton had more concern for the choreography than he did a dancer’s ego.

I also found Aminta’s variation pleasing as well.  For one thing the music is nice and light, as I sometimes find music for male variations to be really heavy on the “oom-pa” (like DonQ, Corsaire, Flames of Paris, etc.).  However, Aminta’s variation has buoyancy without the heavy brassiness.  There’s a wonderful symmetry to the choreography for the variation, since most typically ask a dancer to “show their good side,” but Ashton repeats certain phrases giving it a nice balance and satisfying us neurotics.  He also uses some creative jumps, the way Bolle tucks his leg underneath in the opening diagonal is a nice touch but my favorite step comes after the sequence of cabrioles (which happen right after the first two diagonals of leaps) and he does a variation on the failli-assemblé, except the assemblé has a rond de jambe with the leading leg, opens to second midair and closes to fifth.  If you have no idea what that means, that’s okay…just watch for him to go to the corner, then travel in a diagonal doing a little hop into another jump where the front leg does a wiggly-do.

Obviously, I enjoyed Sylvia a lot.  It’s uncomplicated, light and sweet…like cotton candy.  In bed.  With a goat.

(Sylvia is available in full on YouTube, but the video size seems to be distorted and will drive you crazy.  Getting your hands on the DVD is highly recommended and now that I’ve returned my overdue copy to the Ohio State library, you can!  Or if you’re super lucky, you can see the Royal Ballet perform it this fall.  I will if I win the lottery.)

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4 Responses to “Greek Geek it Out”

  1. Linda March 4, 2010 at 2:52 am #

    And if you win the Lottery, don’t miss Marianela Nuñez as Sylvia! Trust me on this one, from the current crop of RB ballerinas, she owns the role…and she does bend in true Ashtonian style!

    • chansarita March 4, 2010 at 3:53 am #

      I think Marianela suits Ashton’s choreography more than Darcey, Darcey’s long legs and arms make hitting the notes when the choreography suggests you to a bit later, but that can be enjoyed as phrasing the music, nonetheless Darcey is so wonderful and sublime too!

      I really enjoy reading how you describe Ashton’s choreography, I am not good at describing in words how I feel about watching his choreography but your words just do that for me!!

      However two thing I can’t really stand in Sylvia are some of the costumes, (such as skirts with huge spots on them, do Greek Gods wear them?) and the silly back stroke arm movements and on the point skipping when Act 3 starts… But feel free to argue back, and make me see why that is good and make me love Sylvia even more!!

      • youdancefunny March 4, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

        Thanks for commenting!

        You know that one spotted skirt stood out to me as well. I don’t think she was a goddess and they didn’t really have patterned fabrics in Rome except for embroidered togas, which were reserved for very high ranking officials (and I’m not sure women ever wore patterened clothing at all!). Even decorative borders on the hem of a tunic like Aminta’s in Act 3 would indicate a higher rank, so I guess somehow Aminta went from a lowly shepherd to a wealthier one!

        I think the arm waving was probably meant to make it look almost like flailing, because bacchanals were supposed to be really wild festivals. So maybe Ashton wanted lots of arm movements, but didn’t want something messy looking. Just a theory though! I thought there were some other neat moments in the bacchanal, like the dancers who I’m sure were dressed as Apollo and the 9 muses, in tribute (they weren’t the gods themselves, otherwise their entrances would have been much more dramatic).

    • youdancefunny March 4, 2010 at 4:00 am #

      Crossing all fingers as we speak! Nuñez is such a delight!

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