You can pay homage to a ballet classic or you can tear it up and reinvent it. Both approaches were on offer in London a fortnight ago: a revival of Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, set to Léo Delibes’s 1876 score, and a Swan Lake from Michael Keegan-Dolan that ditches Tchaikovsky, tutus and toe shoes and relocates the story to a dysfunctional community in the Irish midlands.
There’s an eerie, gaslit vibe to the Royal Ballet’s Sylvia. Look along the row and you half expect the audience to be styled to match its Second Empire pastiche: epaulets, lorgnettes, rickets. When Ashton made Daphnis et Chloé, his other nymphs’n’shepherds ballet, in 1951, he professed himself bored by ‘people running around in tunics’ and opted for modern dress. But a year later, the fit had passed. Robin and Christopher Ironside gave Sylvia Poussin-style designs to match the baroque scenario of a virgin huntress, a rapacious abductor and a handy deus ex machina.
Despite an enchanting score, and a title role that lovingly showcased the stylistic range of Margot Fonteyn, 1950s audiences were not entirely convinced. Cuts and revisions followed, but in 1968 what was left of the ballet slipped unmourned from the repertoire until former dancer and balletmaster Christopher Newton undertook to exhume and reanimate the surviving fragments in 2004.
Ashtonian style — bendy bodies, rapid footwork — eluded many of the ensembles and Sylvia’s private army of nymphs were decidedly hit and miss (Yuhui Choe and Fumi Kaneko always excepted). But there were brightly polished cameos from James Hay and David Yudes, and the leading roles, shared by three different casts, were vividly played and danced.
The shepherd Aminta is a bit of a wet rag, plot-wise.