I have long wished to swim through the other-worlds created by Georges Méliès, and Stanton Welch’s “Sylvia,” a co-production between Houston Ballet and the Australian Ballet, gives me the opportunity to do just that; to submerge myself in a fantastical landscape that delights in the play of model making and storytelling; in how we tell a story and the story itself. Theatrical and larger than life.
To me, the beauty of Méliès’ 1903 film, The Kingdom of the Fairies (Le Royaume des Fées), is derived in equal measure from the magical figures that appear to swim and the visibility of the harness around their forms that lets the performers achieve this sensation. I love the aquatic underworld Méliès has created for the detectable mechanics of his illusions as much as the effect of the creative illusions themselves. It is the freedom to dream while still being tethered to the practicalities of a set. It is the tension between the trick and how it is done, and between character and performer, and by extension between fairy and human, god and mortal that draws parallels between “Sylvia” and The Kingdom of the Fairies.
Both permit me one stage-front perspective. The painted grotto in The Kingdom is outward facing. (The camera doesn’t weave through the landscape as lighter and smaller technology permits now, rather it is before a stage in which elements roll in from the left and right, and curtains of landscape lift and lower to create movement and depth of field.) My mind knows that the grotto is a façade that if viewed from behind it would reveal the raw timber support. The very essence of this magic trick from over a century ago is in “Sylvia.” Indeed, both feature a painted grotto, and projections not so very different in reach. Where Méliès gives us a layered collage of fish swimming over the scene in order to suggest water, Wendall K. Harrington gives us projections onto the interchangeable surfaces of Jérôme Kaplan’s set design.
Welch has introduced two new heroines to the original ballet of 1876—Artemis (Robyn Hendricks), from the realm of the gods, and Psyche (Jade Wood), from the mortal world—to join the warrior nymph Sylvia (Ako Kondo). And to each heroine, a love interest. To Artemis, Orion (Adam Bull), to Psyche, Eros (Marcus Morelli), and to Sylvia, the Shepherd (Kevin Jackson) in the Australian Ballet’s third performance of “Sylvia.” A triple narrative to wrap one’s head around (as a lengthy synopsis and colour charts dotted around the foyer testify). Colour, in costumes also designed by Kaplan, serves as a key to the mythical map. To the goddess of the hunt, blue, to the sword-wielding nymph Sylvia, white, and to the mortal who upstages Aphrodite, pink. Gold, for Zeus, Apollo, Adonis, et al. And then add cheeky Fauns, Dogs from the Underworld, a fishy gang of thugs, and Callisto as a Bear.
Just as the stories of the three heroines intertwine throughout the three-act ballet, the projections morph from linear rivers of marble for the terrain of the gods to pastoral landscapes dotted with sheep for Jackson’s Shepherd to lightly roam through. Verdant and velvety landscapes reminiscent of Jan Brueghel the Elders’ The Earthly Paradise and Garden of Eden transition into a still life of flowers in bloom for Wood’s Psyche-blush to her Eros. Hendricks, Kondo, and Wood shine greater than any trick will permit. Their movements more than echo the twists and turns in Delibes’ “Sylvia;” they are all, in different ways, as befits their characters, the essence of the happiness in the music. Hendricks, Kondo, and Wood, by turns, indulge in every flute flutter and cymbal crash; in every arrow soar and ecstatic foot flicker, with strength, lightness, and precision.
Welch’s “Sylvia” draws on referable shapes, further heightening the sense that perhaps I am seeing a statue of Artemis in the museum come to life on the stage. Or as though I am spinning a vase from Greek mythology so fast as to make a Centaur gallop, my own version of Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion. With every stepping through heel of the foot first and fingers clicking with an inward accent, Greek folk dancing and a sense of community, and communication, evolves; peppered, of course, with humour.
From mischievous Fauns leaping in a circle—Yichuan Wang, Cameron Holmes, Shaun Andrews, and Drew Hedditch—shaking their fringed limbs, and Morelli, spring-filled, in need not of Cupid’s wings, to Kondo and Jackson’s pas de deux in which, in reversal of ideas, she is the one to lift his chin upward, “Sylvia,” re-spun, is its own spell. Wood’s levitating revival scene sans harness, in particular, drew an animated “what the!?” from the person in front of me. Kondo’s pas de deux in Act III with David McAllister as the Older Shepherd (before being transformed into a demi-god) took on an added tenderness in light of this being McAllister’s last year as artistic director.
“What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony,”1 described Tchaikovsky of Delibes’ “Sylvia.” Naturally, he was right. “Sylvia” is an epic joy “in the heavens for all eternity.”2
- “I listened to Léo Delibes’ ballet, Sylvia. In fact, I actually listened, because it is the first ballet where the music constitutes not only the main, but the only interest. What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony. I was ashamed. If I had known this music before, then of course I would not have written Sylvia.” Tchaikovsky in a letter to Sergei Taneyev, December 7, 1877.
- The Australian Ballet’s synopsis of “Sylvia.”