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Review and Interview, 5-6: Struck
Morris Enchants San Francisco Ballet with Evening-length "Sylvia"
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Tsao
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SAN FRANCISCO -- After
interviewing Mark Morris by telephone just a week before the premiere
on Friday, April 30 of his three-act "Sylvia" for San Francisco
Ballet, I relaxed and felt confident that the work would be a success.
I don't always feel that way before seeing premieres in general,
but this time Morris's description of his process and declaration
of his great love for the musical score by Leo Delibes put me in
a generous frame of mind.
I ask Morris to explain
how he came to choose "Sylvia" when Helgi Tomasson, artistic director
of San Francisco Ballet, requested an evening-length ballet from
him several years ago. "The score," he answers simply. "Every dance
I do is because of the music. I listened to many, many ballet scores
because I wanted to use one that was intact and not cobble something
together. There aren't that many great ballet scores, but I ended
up with 'Sylvia,' which I knew some of, but had never seen a production
of. It was new territory for me. It's an incredibly great score;
Tchaikovsky admired it enormously. It's just rarely heard, except
for a few famous tunes we hear in ballet class. It's really an amazingly
composed and beautifully orchestrated piece of music."* When I inquire
about whether he followed the original libretto or merely used the
music as the background for his own story, Morris is quick to assure
me, "I'm not paraphrasing at all. It's these characters in this
situation. It's a story ballet and that's why the music exists."
When I mention that
I find it curious that he has used "Facade" (William Walton), "Four
Saints in Three Acts" (Virgil Thomson), and now "Sylvia," all music
that Frederick Ashton had also choreographed, he says " It's just
a coincidence. I've done a 'Nutcracker' that everyone has used,
and 'Liebeslieder Waltzes' (Johannes Brahms) that Balanchine used,
and Satie's 'Les Gnossienes' that Ashton also used. He just had
good taste in music." "Like you" I add. "I think Ashton is an incredible
genius of a choreographer," Morris continues. "Unbelievably brilliant.
More of (his work) should be seen here." I say I couldn't agree
more and said so in my review of SFB's Ashton program.
Opening night at the War Memorial Opera House is not one of casual
expectation. This is one of the most important premieres for this
company, not only because it is the first time that Morris has created
an evening-length ballet on a company other than his own, but it
is the first time any version of "Sylvia" is being performed by
an American ballet company.
Midway into the overture,
I am already charmed by the music, so when the curtain finally rises,
it doesn't take more than a glance at the lush and verdant floral
backdrop, green velvet draperies and the gilded statue of Eros,
all by scenic designer Allen Moyer, to completely ensnare me. I
gladly surrender to this realm of mythical creatures as dryads,
satyrs and naiads, costumed by Martin Pakledinaz, emerge and dance.
My first impression is that this production is reminiscent of "Platee,"
the Rameau opera that Morris directed and choreographed, with striking
visuals by Adrienne Lobel and inventive costuming by Isaac Mizrahi.
I am not inclined to
lay out the entire synopsis of "Sylvia" here, but will give a brief
plotline, with more detail when description of the choreography
warrants it. Sylvia, a nymph of the goddess Diana, is loved by the
shepherd Aminta and Orion. When Aminta is caught spying on her,
she aims to shoot him with an arrow, but then fires instead at the
statue of Eros. The shepherd leaps to protect the god of love and
is killed. Eros appears and shoots Sylvia with his golden arrow.
Sylvia is kidnaped by Orion when she comes back to see Aminta's
body. A sorcerer brings Aminta back to life then reveals himself
to be Eros in disguise. The shepherd runs off to find his beloved
nymph. Orion takes the unconscious Sylvia to a cave. She awakens
and discovers there is no escape. Orion's slaves offer her a banquet
and she teaches them to make fresh wine. Soon when Orion and the
slaves are in a drunken stupor, Sylvia prays to Eros and pledges
herself to him. He appears and transports her from the cave. During
a Bacchanal, Aminta still hopes to see Sylvia again. A pirate arrives
with a boat full of slave women, to one of whom Aminta is inexplicably
drawn. It is Sylvia in disguise and they are in love. Orion arrives
and challenges Aminta over their common love interest. Sylvia hides
behind Diana's statue, as Orion tries to destroy it. Diana appears
and kills him. She also wants to kill the lovers for Sylvia has
broken her vows. The pirate pleads for them, reminding Diana of
her own indiscretion, then reveals he is Eros. She relents and they
both bless the young lovers.
There are three main
features of Morris's choreography that I find compelling. The first
is his creation of his own mime vocabulary, an issue I addressed
in my review of the Hong Kong Theater of Silence. None
of the old-fashioned, and -- at least in the vestiges that remain
-- practically nonsensical gesturing found in "Giselle," "Swan Lake"
and "Sleeping Beauty," for example, are to be found here. It is
quite naturalistic, hardly noticeable really, but the dancers clearly
communicate with each other and the audience.
The second compelling
feature is the way Morris uses motif sequences of steps or gestures
to communicate concepts and relationships between characters. Aminta
makes his entrance turning an attitude en dehors into a tendu croise
front in plie. Sylvia performs exactly the same steps later, moving
towards Aminta's dead body as if to say, Of course we do the same
steps because we share something with each other, and now that he
is gone, at least I can do them for both of us. Another example
of this repetition occurs when Aminta is revived from the dead.
The sorcerer runs his hand down the shepherd's leg, then touches
his chest as he slowly returns to life. Aminta extends his arm up
behind himself, curving it around a head, imagining it to be Sylvia's.
He pulls himself to a sitting position only to discover it's the
really the sorcerer. Later in the second act, Orion dances his obsessive
love for Sylvia while she lies unconscious. As she slowly wakens
she extends her arm upward in exactly the same way as Aminta had,
only to find Orion instead. There is a lot of this type of echoing
and it serves to unify the characters with each other as well as
solidify the whole ballet stylistically.
The last feature I find
particularly intriguing is the steps themselves, or rather the manner
in which Morris repeats movement phrases, or variations on a phrase,
by the same dancers or different ones. In the second act, Orion
and Sylvia dance a pas de deux with lifts and jumps that soar. Before
you know it, the slaves have subverted the combinations and are
doing their own frenetic, drunken version of them. The steps of
the grande pas de deux in the third act recall a sequence of jumps
from the first act, now done much larger and slower as lifts.
Interestingly, the choreography
seems to reflect the ambience created by the set in each act, or
vice versa. The forest of the opening act provides the backdrop
for very natural movement as well as for variations not in the classical
vein. They do not repeat verbatim, but instead begin what hints
at a repetition, only to veer off in a new direction, often using
asymmetrical floor patterns. The dark and claustrophobic cave of
the middle act reflects the intensity of Orion's desire for Sylvia
and the more earthy, weighted dancing for the slaves. And the beautiful,
classical temple of the final act is the perfect environment for
the far more classical choreography that closes the ballet. There
is something even Ashtonian about the clarity and purity of these
last dances. Not in the steps themselves, but in essence, in the
stripping down to the bare minimum necessary to convey Morris's
What a pleasure to see
an entire company enjoying themselves on stage, with especially
fine portraits drawn by the lead dancers. Yuan Yuan Tan balances
youthful innocence and stubborn self-determination as Sylvia. The
gazelle she evokes with her long-legged loping around the stage
is unforgettable. As Aminta, Gonzalo Garcia couples rustic charm
with effortless technique. Muriel Maffre is beautifully imperious
and regal as Diana, while Jaime Garcia Castilla is deliciously impish
as Eros and mysterious and elusive as both the Sorcerer and the
Pirate. Yuri Possokhov has made his Orion, though in many ways still
the villain, also capable of love. His comedic talent really shines
in his grinning drunken walk.
It is also important
to note that Morris has cast his ballet without regard to the ranks
of the dancers in the company. Two of the Sylvias are principal
dancers, while the other two are from the corps de ballet. All of
the Amintas are principals and all of the Eroses are corps de ballet
members. Plus there are a handful of soloists dancing with the corps.
I was lucky enough to catch one of the other casts last night, and
am reluctant to make direct comparisons. Every dancer brings his
or her unique qualities to the roles. Elizabeth Miner makes a serene
and resolute Sylvia. She isn't afraid to fight Orion, thinks quickly
on her feet when confronted with dilemmas and lets herself enjoy
being in love. Lorena Feijoo is passionately angry in the part of
Diana as lightning flashes on stage, literally and metaphorically.
Pascal Molat, one of my favorites in this company, imbues his Aminta
with deep reverence for Eros and even deeper love for Sylvia. But
better still, he suffuses his dancing with absolute rapture.
*Editor's Note: In Europe, John Neumeier's evening-length production
is in the current repertory of the Paris Opera Ballet. To read Paul
Ben-Itzak's Dance Insider review, please click here.
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