Darcey Bussell Recollects Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia

09/12/2018

The Royal Opera House’s Cinema Festival – The Royal Ballet’s Sylvia (choreography by Sir Frederic Ashton): Soloists, corps de ballet and Royal Opera House Orchestra / Graham Bond (conductor). Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon. Introduced by Dame Darcey Bussell and screened in the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 7.12.2018. (JPr)

Darcey Bussell as Sylvia (c) ROH

Production:

Choreography – Frederick Ashton
Production realization – Christopher Newton
Original designers – Christopher Ironside and Robin Ironside
Additional designs – Peter Farmer
Lighting designer – Mark Jonathan

Cast included:

Sylvia – Darcey Bussell
Aminta – Roberto Bolle
Orion – Thiago Soares
Eros – Martin Harvey
Diana – Mara Galeazzi
Slaves – Kenta Kura and Joshua Tuifua
Goats – Iohna Loots and José Martín

The newly reopened Linbury Theatre is described as ‘a fully flexible space’ and provides an intimate 406 seat auditorium ‘designed as a fully realized new stage for the Royal Opera House to present an exciting array of innovative and engaging new work’. From earlier this month until 7 January 2019 there is – as test events presumably – a celebration of ten years of the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Seasons with screenings of a selection of important operas and ballets. Entering from an austere new basement foyer you will find more comfortable seating than before in the redesigned – and now horseshoe-shaped theatre – that looks like the ‘lovechild’ of Grange Park Opera’s ‘The Theatre in the Woods’ and Sadler’s Wells. Inbuilt into it all is an intriguing puzzle for first-time visitors as the comment frequently heard was ‘where are the seat numbers?’ before patrons bend and strain to see tiny numbers on the fold down part.

Dame Darcey Bussell (speaking to The Royal Ballet’s Senior Producer Amanda Skoog) was present to informatively and entertainingly introduce her performance in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia that was recorded in 2005 as part of The Royal Ballet’s 75th anniversary celebrations. Sylvia is a pastoral tale inspired by Greek mythology and a homage to the conventions of nineteenth-century ballet. There is a backdrop of gambolling peasants, fauns and goats (yes, honestly!) to some Amazonian warrior women have renounced love. Eros takes human form to resurrects the ballet’s ‘hero’ Aminta, a shepherd, who is in love with Sylvia, one of the huntress Diana’s nymphs, as well as, paper over other cracks in the plot. Eros later rescues Sylvia when she has been abducted by the hunter Orion and – notwithstanding how they seem to stop off on their journey back to collect a wedding dress and eight tutued attendants – Eros calms an angry Diana (the goddess of chastity) to orchestrate the happy ending for Aminta and Sylvia. Nobody would realistically go to Sylvia for this plot though somebody sitting behind me was – genuinely – disappointed when someone revealed to him how the ballet was to end!

Sylvia was Ashton’s second full-length work and was first staged in 1952 and was something of a present from Ashton to Margot Fonteyn, the first Sylvia, as it was conceived to showcase all her virtuosity. Its leading role – as Darcey Bussell confirmed – is very demanding: in Act I Sylvia goes from hard-hearted huntress to a lovestruck – literally – woman and there are bounding leaps and tremulously bourrées; in the second act she is a seductress, tempting and tricking Orion to drink himself into a stupor; and for the final act Sylvia is the quintessential classical ballerina. The Act III solo is full of Ashton’s trademark complex fast footwork and changes of direction (to Delibes’s famous Pizzicato) and there is the pas de deux with Aminta that – whilst full of fish dives, bravura lifts and tricky steps – is achingly tender.

As time went on Ashton’s original concept became a distant memory and after he died in 1988 all that was left was basically just that Act III pas de deux. The choreography was never notated, and the only record seems to have been some poor black and white film. The job of bringing Sylvia back to Covent Garden fell to former dancer and ballet master, Christopher (‘Fig’) Newton (who danced in the ballet during the 1950s) using his handwritten notes about the choreography, as well as, recreating some of the steps from memory. Alongside existing paintings and photographic records of the original sets, costume designs were apparently found in The Royal Ballet’s archives in a mislabelled box and this helped complete all the ‘dance archaeology’. Sylvia exists now – whether on film or in rare theatre outings – as something unique to be treasured. This is despite the creaky plot and concerns over how much choreography is genuinely Ashton’s – including all the jumps that Dame Darcey thought might be due to Nadia Narina another memorable early Sylvia – or merely created by Newton and others from unreliable memories.

Almost exactly 18 months after this performance (recorded in early December 2005) Darcey Bussell retired from ballet. I never saw that many of her performances because I preferred other dancers when I watched The Royal Ballet. However Sylvia shows Dame Darcey at the height of her powers and reminds us – when she was on top form like this – of how good she could be. Despite her protestations that she was not that different to Fonteyn who she said had ‘Extraordinary proportions and perfect symmetry’, she clearly was! The closeups we saw in the film made me agree with Amanda Skoog who said Dame Darcey was ‘Quite a different dancer [with] beautiful long legs and a fantastic jump’ and, perhaps more unexpectedly, a fine natural actress who made all the hokum we saw believable. In a ballet ‘about the power of women’ that she described as totally different from the ‘fragile’ roles ballerinas usually must perform, it might possibly (or not?) seem strange to write how there was something quite masculine about Dame Darcey’s long-limbed technique, power and presence on stage.

As Aminta, Roberto Bolle – another dancer I was unfamiliar with – was the perfect partner for Dame Darcey’s Sylvia and, for the shepherd, he was almost impossibly handsome, tall and regal. He would tower over most of The Royal Ballet’s current crop of male dancers and the closest to him now would be Vadim Muntagirov; though Bolle brought more machismo to Ashton’s fussy steps than that equally fine dancer can muster. It was the company’s men that got the most out of Sylvia. When Martin Harvey’s Eros is in disguise his comic solo wittily channelled (deliberately?) that of Widow Simone from Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and he showed real grandeur as the god. As Orion, Thiago Soares gave a scenery chewing performance – in an unashamedly one-dimensional role – worthy of a silent movie villain, whilst his dancing was clean and energetic. Orion’s two slaves, Joshua Tuifa and Kenta Kura, had a rather embarrassing – for 2018 sensibilities – orientalist number which they danced enthusiastically.

The entire company showed brio in all they did, with many now more familiar names, such as Lauren Cuthbertson and Sarah Lamb, among Sylvia’s attendants. Even the ceremonial goats in the wedding divertissement, Iohna Loots and José Martín, enjoyed themselves immensely. Sylvia ended with the exultant celebratory finale and the whole cast skipping, spinning and bounding to give full value to Ashton’s deft filigree footwork and buoyant jumps. As always it is difficult to comment on the music through theatre loudspeakers, but Graham Bond sounded as if he did not indulge his dancers and it was a fairly quick-tempoed account of Delibes’s melodic Mendelsohn-inflected masterpiece with plenty of finesse when required it seemed.

Jim Pritchard

For more about what is on at the Royal Opera House click here.

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