Yesterday I had one of those crazed balletomane days where I went to both matinee and evening performances of Sylvia at ABT. Cast for matinee was the esteemed Diana Vishneva as Sylvia, forever-a-heartthrob Ethan Stiefel as Aminta, the shepherd in love with her, Jared Matthews as Orion, the evil hunter, and Craig Salstein as Eros, or Cupid.
Michele Wiles as Sylvia, photo by Rosalie O’Connor, from ABT’s website.
Second cast, which, with the exception of Vishneva was overall far better, was Michele Wiles in the lead, Roberto Bolle as Aminta, Cory Stearns as Orion, and Daniil Simkin as Eros. In the second cast, Kristi Boone also stood out as Diana, the goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and both goats Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein; Carlos Lopez in the first cast was a good goat (feel a bit funny saying that). Both Terpsichores I saw really magically devoured the stage quite well: Simone Messmer and Veronika Part.
Roberto Bolle as Aminta, photo by Johan Persson, from BalletCo.
Anyway, this is my first time seeing a full-length Frederick Ashton ballet and now I’m curious to see more. It reminded me a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the gods and nymphs and the love unrequited and then requited theme and the mystical, enchanting, dream-like quality of it all.
Here’s the story: scantily-clad Aminta the shepherd is in love with Sylvia, one of goddess Diana’s nymphs who, at the top of the ballet has just led a very successful hunt. She and her fellow huntresses celebrate their victorious hunt. Then, having renounced love, Sylvia taunts the god Eros, who, painted in silver and wearing a leaf fig over his private parts, spends the first act standing atop a pedestal. (This is a very fun ballet.) Evil Orion is also in love with Sylvia and seeks to possess her.
Aminta declares his love for Sylvia, who of course laughs at the poor guy, then blames Eros for making him fall for her. She points her arrow at the god , but Aminta, shielding him, receives her arrow and dies. Eros retaliates and shoots Sylvia, piercing her heart and thereby making her fall in love with the now-deceased Aminta. She goes off with her huntresses and along comes Orion who gloats over Aminta’s dead body. Sylvia returns to mourn her new love, and Orion captures her and takes her off to his cave.
A peasant witnesses the whole thing and calls a kind of wise man-type guy, an old fellow dressed in a long, grey cloak (who ends up being Eros). This guy works his magic and brings Aminta back to life, and the peasants tell him of Sylvia’s abduction.
Meanwhile back at the cave, Orion tries to gain Sylvia’s affection with jewels, finery, and wine. She encourages him to drink the wine, so he’ll fall asleep and she can escape. She gives kind of a goofily seductive belly dance until he falls under her spell, into a deep sleep. Eros then appears and saves her, carting her off, via boat, to Diana’s temple.
At the temple, Aminta is searching for Sylvia. Eros brings her, reunites the two lovers, and all is well, until Orion arrives and tries to steal Sylvia back. He and Aminta fight, and Diana, angry at all this fighting, kills Orion. Initially, she gets angry at Aminta and Sylvia and forbids their union, but Eros reminds her of her earlier love of a shepherd and she relents and blesses the lovers. And all is well and there’s a big divertissement where cute little dancing goat people, and other fairies and gods like Persephone and Pluto, and Terpsichore and Apollo, come out and dance.
Photo of Vishneva from ABT website.
So, the dancing: I’ve heard Michele Wiles owns this role (since she’s a tough-looking, athletic-type of dancer), but, actually, I liked both her and Diana Vishneva equally well in this. I thought Diana brought something different, and honestly, she really grew on me in this. She was the best I think I’ve ever seen her. I’ve always thought she acts the prima ballerina more than the character she’s portraying — either not getting into the character or waiting until too late in the ballet to do so. But not so here. Not at all; she was the huntress through and through from the get-go. Her huntress, renouncer of love, was sweet and flirtatious. She had this genuine smile throughout the whole first scene that made me feel her happiness at the success of the hunt, and her fulfillment as a nymph who didn’t need a man, who was annoyed by Eros and Aminta for wanting to make her into something she was not. And then I really felt her change when she was pierced in the heart by Eros’s arrow.
The main movement motif in this part is the long, traveling grand jete, in which the dancer doesn’t just run and then jump but uses the actual leap to do the traveling. It looks like the dancer is suspended in the air for a time. It looks very difficult and it looks good on an athletic body. It kind of resembles a hunter creeping up on prey. Both ballerinas did that very well I thought; perhaps Michele a little more so because her body is a bit larger and looked somewhat more suspended.
And I LOVED how Ashton’s Sylvia approached Aminta after he lay dead and she realized she loved him. I love both the choreography and the ballerinas’ execution of it — particularly Diana’s. Ashton creates these bourrees (small traveling steps on pointe) where one foot will inch ahead of the other, the other staying in place, as if showing Sylvia wants badly to approach Aminta but is being held back. When she retreats, it’s the same thing — the back foot inches back before the front because she doesn’t really want to leave him but knows she must. It’s really beautiful and little things like this make me realize Ashton’s genuis.
I love Vishneva’s approach to small movements like this. She is really good at conveying emotion with the bourrees and “bourree variations” for lack of a better term. I’m also thinking of Romeo and Juliet, which she’ll dance on Monday, when she runs around kneeling Romeo, one foot on pointe, the other grounded, running ‘normally’ — heel – toe. When she does that she’s so girlish, so innocent and so falling-in-love — half of her already having fallen as represented by the one foot on pointe, the other half of her still ‘grounded.’ She does those ‘half bourrees’ better than anyone, including Alessandra Ferri!
During the belly-dance scene where Sylvia’s dancing for her freedom from Orion, the two ballerinas really differed in approach. Michele danced it more like I’d imagine Veronika Part to — like Part does in La Bayadere — like she’s full of sorrow at having been trapped, a captive. She’s trying to dance seductively and sexily but she can’t help but let her misery show through. Diana didn’t take that approach though. Her Sylvia decides — and you can see the decision register in her eyes — that this is her way out. So she really vamps it up. It’s really sexy but it also looks like she’s trying very hard to be seductive so he’ll fall under her spell. So, since Diana’s Sylvia is obviously trying so hard, it ends up looking rather cute and rather pathetic in a different way.
The men: well, I love Ethan, but I do think his injury this season (whatever it was) has kind of prevented him from returning to his fullest. His jumps were there but shaky and overall he just isn’t dancing with the sharpness and strength and exactitude he had at the beginning of the season. I think he’s done for the season now (he doesn’t have any Romeos) so he has plenty of time to rest and fully recover.
Okay, Roberto totally blew me away. Now, I see what everyone is talking about This is the best I’ve seen him this season. He really seemed to have a rapport with Michele. He seemed very comfortable with her. And his solos were breathtaking. And yes, he did look exceedingly cute bare-legged in that, loincloth, basically. His long-legged lines are just gorgeous. And he acted this well, holding his hands to his heart as if genuinely in love with her and praying to Daniil Simkin’s love god. He was really a heartbreaker!
Cory Stearns was excellent as Orion, showing he can do evil bastard just as well as boyishly charming hero. Jared Matthews was not as good at Orion. I think he’s a great dancer, but as an actor, he always seems to go for the most cliched action. It’s not real. He never seems to inhabit the character and I think he could really benefit from some acting lessons.
Both Cupids I saw — Craig Salstein and Daniil Simkin — were excellent. All those frolicking jumps really suit a small body. My favorite part of the Eros solo is where he hops around in a circle, on one leg, repeatedly kicking out the free leg with great speed. The speed required means the step takes a lot of coordination and Daniil did particularly well at those. It’s another movement I thought very brilliantly Ashton-esque, kind of happy, victorious, mischievous and mercurial all at once.
I’m sure I left someone out but this post is ridiculously long now so I’m going to stop. I have one more Sylvia to go — Marcelo as Aminta and Paloma in the lead!