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Flash Flashback, 7-25: Struck
Morris Enchants San Francisco Ballet with Evening-length "Sylvia"

By Aimee Ts'ao
Copyright 2004, 2006 Aimee Ts'ao

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash interview and review originally appeared on May 6, 2004. San Francisco Ballet performs Mark Morris's "Sylvia" tomorrow through Friday at the Lincoln Center Festival. To read Dance Insider reviews of Christopher Wheeldon's "Quaternary" and Helgi Tomasson's "7 for Eight," both being performed on SFB's repertoire program Saturday and Sunday, please click, respectively, here and here.

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 intentions.

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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