Sylvia, American Ballet Theatre, New York – review

At Sylvia the other night, there flashed into my mind a famous choreographer’s warning that no good comes of pondering a ballet’s plot. And yet Ashton’s 1952 story ballet begins so promisingly, you want to think about it.

Fauns and naiads descend into loving huddles while nymph Sylvia – acolyte of fierce, chaste goddess Diana – discovers her animal pleasures in the hunt, surrounded by a sisterhood armed with bows, arrows and steely legs. Sylvia raises a fist, swings her free leg like a pendulum, spins on one foot and then, in the same direction, the other, and bursts into the air with chest open and arms in a V for victory. On Tuesday, Gillian Murphy span out the tricky steps with imperious ease. Murphy exudes a cool glamour yet somehow remains touchingly within reach.

In Sylvia, it is the man who first begs for love. Shepherd Aminta flattens his body into wide, straight lines that make him seem less open-hearted than one-dimensional. Marcelo Gomes executed the thankless steps impeccably. But perhaps out of loyalty to bland Aminta, he ironed out his trademark luxuriance. Only dullards pine for the impossible, Ashton suggests. The likes of Sylvia and her rapacious admirer Orion seize the moment.

Every move in the first act brings out the story – the giddy whirl of young womanhood, the goofy improbability of love, the incompleteness that an unrequited lover suffers. Once Eros sends an arrow into Sylvia’s heart, though, Ashton’s ingenuity grows patchy and the story wilts a bit. After its pastoral beginnings, Sylvia jets forward to parody the Orientalist ballet before heading into Sleeping Beauty terrain, with its processionals, storybook characters and plucky steps for the ballerina. As for the story, Orion drags Sylvia off to his lair, where she offers her body in exchange for a freedom that consists of donning a prissy pink tutu so she can be handled like an expensive statue.

Still, if Murphy (and the rest of the Sylvias this week) were to treat each act as a distinct episode in the young woman’s self-fashioning, we would all have more fun. When Sylvia seduces her captor in the cave, for example, she manufactures a marathon of hoochie-coochie variations: exhausting, sure, but why not also exhilarating? The nymph is choosing her moves.

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