Thursday 21 November 2019

Sylvia - The Birthday Treat

Pre-performance photo of Sylvia at the Sydney Opera House with programme
Waiting for the lights to dim for
Sylvia at the Sydney Opera House

Over in the Pipistrello household, we realised the Ballet Season for this year was practically done and dusted and, for one reason or another, we'd not yet seen one performance. For shame! Luckily, the Scorpio-in-the-home had his birthday fall right about the time that Stanton Welch's Sylvia came to town so, Dear Reader, some last-minute tickets were bought and off we trundled to the Opera House. Fittingly, for a ballet featuring the cast of the Greek Pantheon, our seats were up with the gods!

Illustration of Rita Sangalli as imagined as Sylvia at the premiere of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1876
Italian ballerina Rita Sangalli - The Original Sylvia
As imagined at the Paris Opera Ballet's 1876 premiere

This seldom seen ballet has had a vigorous reworking since the days of Margot Fonteyn dancing the lead in Frederick Ashton's adaptation, and is a co-production between the Houston Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Australian choreographer Stanton Welch is artistic director of the HB these days and the Sydney season features two of its principals plus Misty Copeland but our performance starred all the home grown dancers*. Costumes and sets by Jérôme Kaplan have gone all Grecian for this production and are as minimal and muscular as we have come to expect from his modern hand.

Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenskaya as Sylvia in 1901
Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenska as Sylvia in 1901
The lady means business!

The eponymous nymph-warrior Sylvia has in fact been joined by two other female leads in this version and I shall not even attempt to explain the Very Complicated plot. We were well-primed by the ballet's advance publicity for the dominating presence of the female roles, what with their sword wielding, lethal bows and general smiting, and proactiveness in the romance department. However, we are no stranger to cranky Swans or sinister Wilis so are generally unfazed by girls Dishing it Out on the stage but, armoured up, the Sylvia dancers were a striking bunch. Bosoms & six-packs galore!

The Australian Ballet's principal artist Ako Kondo as Sylvia with fauns attending, Jeff Busby photo credit
AB's Ako Kondo as Sylvia today
Fussed over by  frolicsome fauns in furry ra-ra pants

We had three love stories: Sylvia and The Shepherd (Ako Kondo and Kevin Jackson for our performance), Artemis and Orion (Dimity Azoury and Nathan Brook) and Psyche and Eros (Benedicte Bemet and Marcus Morelli); some nasty sibling rivalry between Artemis and Apollo; an army of nymphs and some attendant slaughtering; some typical Olympic jealousies, betrayals, avengings, kidnappings and rescues. Plus some lighter moments with frolicking fauns, an unfolding Arcadian family tree and Happy Endings all around - save for all those smote earlier. And all set to the utterly delightful score by Léo Delibes.

Bronze plaque of Léo Delibes, c. 1870
Composer Léo Delibes c. 1870

Frankly, it was all very, very complicated and in spite of the handy colour-coding of the principals, we were baffled by the storyline. The first Act was particularly confusing and not made any easier by the lauded "chiaroscuro effects" with the lighting. Chasing dancers around the stage with spotlights didn't work so well from our lofty seats, and I must admit that ol' Pipistrello has reached the age when a pair of opera glasses would have been handy to make out what was going on in the shadows.

So essential when sitting up with the gods
... Next time

But one does not go the ballet to immerse oneself in the plot or learn a lesson or two, rather to be dazzled by the bravura of a most excellent ballet company and wallow in the beautiful music. Which we had in spades! It was athletic and for the leads, particularly, complex and executed brilliantly. So for a Remembrance Day evening out, we were memorably entertained and delighted.

* And a nice little coda: Dimity Azoury and Benedicte Bemet were both promoted to Principal Artist this week. Congratulations on this fine achievement for a couple of well deserving, fabulous dancers!

Image credits: Flying With Hands - 1; Wikimedia Commons - 2, 3, 5; Jeff Busby via Google - 4; Flickr - 6


  1. Oh to see Misty Copeland!
    This is one of the best ballet reviews I've ever read. You should send it to one of the local papers. You might be on to a new career. Unless you already are the dance reviewer for the paper.

  2. ToF: I'm so glad you could enjoy my Review. It's a small challenge to write about something which was rather baffling! A new career, you think? A pair of opera glasses would definitely need to be invested in, otherwise I'd just be winging it, haha! Misty Copeland is rather an It-Girl in the ballet world right now and would have made the evening even more memorable. She danced the days before and after our performance, so our paths nearly crossed.

  3. Any live performance is worth going to see and Sylvia sounded rather magnificent ...... if the plot is complicated, the costumes and music are just as lovely so still very exciting. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never heard of Sylvia but we have seen a few balletic performances over the years ....... Mathew Bournes are particular favourites ! When I was at work, many of our patients were dancers with The Royal Ballet and they would give us tickets but that was many, many , many years ago now !!! XXXX

  4. Jackie: I would wager not many would have seen Sylvia but there is a famous pizzicato in the score for the third act that I think the whole world would recognise! It's been used for ads and cartoons and what not for years ... We've missed all the MB productions when they've come to town but one of these days the opportunity will come ... How thrilling for you to have had free tix to The Royal Ballet!! But I didn't know you had dancers as patients - actually, I don't know what you did for work - something medical? xx

  5. Being a DANCER myself in my youth I too had never heard of SYLVIA!
    BUT I met MARGOT FONTEYN and have her autograph tucked away in her BOOK.She was my idol as a young thing..........later in LIFE she married and moved to ARGENTINA and lived on a CATTLE FARM.........Needless to say I was Jealous of that too as I adore COWS!
    I heard recently they are MAKING MINIATURE COWS!!!Do you think BANKSY would be ANNOYED?
    Glad you had an OUTING and another BIRTHDAY was CELEBRATED!GIve the ITALIAN a HUG from ME!
    I have a son born on the 12th of chance is it THAT DAY?

  6. Contessa: I remember you saying you've Margot's autograph - an encounter with a proper Star has never happened in my world but I imagine to meet her was a thrilling moment! ... As for miniature cows, I don't think Banksy would give a care as he knows you'd never countenance one indoors. You've seen how cow pats are formed, I take it? Haha!! ... Mr P's day is the 4th but I trip over Scorpios everywhere. So complementary to my Piscean nature. xx

  7. Sorry to be commenting so late. It's been crazy around here and I got lazy. It sounds like you had a great evening out. I don't think my husband would accompany me to a ballet. He tends to favour the rock n roll things in life. I, in the other hand, would prefer to get a taste of everything.

  8. Loree: No apologies necessary! It's a true delight to me that any comments come to these pages at all. It's true, I'm rather lucky that Mr P. and I have much in common when it comes to old-fashioned entertainments but in the more modern music arena, there is oftentimes a gaping chasm! ... I hope it's a good sort of crazy in your world at the moment.

  9. Seating arrangements for the ballet are crucial. Too close and all the illusion of effortless beauty is dispelled by grunts and heavy breathing. (No, I'm not referring to the audience!) I've been to some memorable performances in London and Paris with our elder daughter. We used to choose or ideal dancers for specific ballets the way men choose their ideal football team.

  10. Rosemary, let's not forget to mention being within earshot of the Ballet Crime of thumping footsteps on the stage! How wonderful to live within striking distance to plentiful venues and have pools of talent from which to pore over the options like punters studying the form.

  11. Oh, I haven't been to the ballet in years. I must go. How wonderful and exciting.

  12. Stephenie: It's always such a treat and I love dressing up for it!


Thank you for commenting, it is greatly appreciated.

It can be a challenge to persist in the matching up of street signs and other exciting pastimes this comment feature may send your way, so if it gets too annoying, feel free to email your comment to me at pipistrello (at) flyingwithhands (dot) com and I'll post it for you.

Bats In The Belfry