Giannandrea Poesio

Escapism at its best

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More than a year since its re-emergence from oblivion, Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia keeps eliciting thunderous ovations. Not surprisingly, one might add. The restored three-acter is not just a shimmering tribute to Ashton’s genius; it is sheer fun, too. Indeed, ‘fun’ more than ‘artistic pleasure’ is what should be expected, for Sylvia is not one of those monoliths of ballet culture we normally attend in religious awe and contemplation.

Originally created in 1876 in Paris, the work mirrored the crisis that underscored French choreography at that time. Little had survived of the golden epoch of the French Romantic ballet, and French theatre dance of the post Franco–Prussian war period suffered greatly from a sterile regurgitation of trite formulae. Although Delibes, whose 1870 Coppélia could be seen as the last of the great French ballets, had created another delightful score, Sylvia lacked the sparkle of its lively predecessor and suffered from a hopelessly shallow narrative.

Loosely based on a risible happy-ending reinterpretation of Tasso’s Aminta, the ballet relied on a typically French 19th-century mythological hotchpotch, but did not have, alas, the spice and the irony found in Offenbach’s mythology-inspired operettas of a few years earlier.

It is fortunate, therefore, that Ashton decided to tackle the old ballet. His unmistakably British rereading of the old choreographic extravaganza and, most of all, his perfectly judged mix of subtle humour and passion for a much idealised golden era of ballet turned Sylvia into something one is still amused and intrigued by.

But the ballet cannot be compared to classics such as Sleeping Beauty, from which Ashton cheeringly quoted (as is evident in the final act’s divertissement). In Beauty, the political and artistic subtexts that informed the style, the choreography and the narrative can still be appreciated; in Sylvia all that is left to appreciate is the French fin de siècle prettiness of the pizzicati variation, originally conceived to make the ballerina show her shining jewels. Yet, Ashton had his own unique way of presenting such an oddity to the public. In his hands, what could easily have been regarded as a dispensable relic became genius-made balletic escapism at its best.

On the opening night of the current run, the Royal Ballet seemed totally au fait with such a spirit and danced with crackling gusto. It’s a pity that the corps de ballet’s lively approach was very much at the expense of co-ordination, musicality and technical tidiness. Darcey Bussell, as the eponymous heroine, shone for impeccable technique, even though her acting was often over the top and her rendition of the pizzicati was not exactly within the music. Roberto Bolle’s Greek-statue-like handsomeness and diamond technique make him a perfect interpreter of her beloved though dramaturgically ineffectual hero Aminta. Martin Harvey, too, was splendid as a physically well-suited and technically strong Eros, while dashing Thiago Soares, as Orion, was the kind of villain many ladies — and gentlemen — of the audience would have liked to be abducted by. No wonder this production, admirably reconstructed by Christopher Newton, has been nominated for the forthcoming Critics’ Circle’s National Dance Awards.

Another nominee for the prestigious awards is Rambert Dance Company, and it is not difficult to see why. The Rambert ensemble stands out for impeccable technique, stylistic consistency and unique artistic eclecticism. It was unfortunate that the programme seen at Sadler’s Wells last week did not fully exploit such qualities, though. Rafael Bonachela’s Curious Conscience is, at first glance, a visually stunning piece, set to Benjamin Britten’s equally stunning Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Yet once the surprise of the asymmetrically entwined groupings begins to fade — which happens within a few minutes of the start — boredom creeps in.

‘Disappointing’ is also the adjective that sprang to mind at the end of Christopher Bruce’s world première of A Steel Garden. Set to David C. Heath’s existing score Dawn of a New Age, the work looked sadly — forgive the pun — too ‘new age’ and thus awfully dated. It brought back painful memories of the time when the exploration of Eastern cultures was regarded as avantgarde. It’s a pity that those days have long gone. Luckily, Michael Clark’s Swamp managed to lift the otherwise flat atmosphere of the evening. This work is somehow dated, too, for it is a 2004 reworking of an 1986 title. But Clark’s take on neoclassicism still has lots to offer to dance goers and, more significantly, to the excellent artists of the company.