Music: Léo Delibes
Choreographer: David Bintley
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Sylvia, a pastoral ballet based on a 16th-century Italian play, was first performed in Paris in 1876. It proved an instant hit, and has since been performed by ballet companies all over the world with artists such as Margot Fonteyn dancing the title rôle. However, in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, part of a season marking David Bintley’s twenty years as director of the company, the superb dancing is occasionally overshadowed by the silliness of the plot.
The ballet opens at a country house in the early 20th century, with Eros in disguise as a gardener, middle-aged and disillusioned, watching over Count and Countess Guiccioli. The couple’s anniversary celebrations fall into disarray when the Count attempts to seduce his children’s young governess (in full view of her beau, the Count’s valet), and Eros decides to take the quartet on a fantasy journey in order to teach them the true meaning of Love. The Countess becomes Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, the Count becomes Orion, a wild hunter, the governess becomes Sylvia, a nymph, and the valet becomes Amynta, a youth blinded by Diana. Complications invariably ensue, but all eventually receive their happy ending, in both the fantasy and the real worlds.
The weakness of this ballet is that it takes itself too seriously. The sheer absurdity of the plot could be extremely comic if performed tongue-in-cheek, almost as a send-up of the genre, but it isn’t until the third act when a band of pirates invades the stage that the audience feels safe to laugh out loud. Plaudits must be given to Mathias Dingman here, underused elsewhere in the ballet as the mysterious Eros, who dances with a peg leg as the Pirate King. There is also fine comedic work from Kit Holder and Lachlan Monaghan, who play fashion-conscious twins in the reality section and Orion’s minions in the fantasy sequence.
As a spectacle, however, the ballet is faultless. The dancing from the principals, soloists and each member of the corps de ballet is excellent, with Céline Gittens, as the Countess and the fiery Diana, a particular stand-out for her athleticism and strong acting skills. Tyrone Singleton, as the Count and Orion, is suitably lecherous, dancing with real sensuality, and Joseph Caley as Amynta impresses in his solos in the third act. Momoko Hirata, taking the title rôle of Sylvia, is exquisite, a complete joy to watch throughout. Sue Blane’s grand, Grecian designs are sleek and impressive, and Mark Jonathan’s lighting is inspired, with a set piece in Orion’s cave in the second act a real highlight.
The ballet takes a while to find its feet, with too much business in the opening scene and very little dancing until the fantasy journey begins. The plot is pure silliness, and would benefit from either a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek approach, or a full-out farcical one. The middle ground that this production has taken falls slightly flat, but the accomplished dancing and stunning designs combine to make Sylvia a pleasant and charming production.
Photo: Bill Cooper | Runs until Saturday 27th June.