American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 25, 2013
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2013 by Carol Pardo
Frederick Ashton’s "Sylvia" is built around its ballerina. Sylvia is, by turns an impudent and independent Amazon; a calculating temptress who frees herself from captivity; and finally a woman fulfilled, united with her beloved. But until the final act solo, this ballet named after its heroine was all about the men who love, desire or protect her.
Although she has danced the ballet elsewhere, this performance was Polina Semionova’s debut in American Ballet Theatre’s production. She is tall enough, strong enough and leggy enough to be a believable huntress. But she faded in and out of character. Sylvia the ballerina and disciple of Diana should never resemble a garden variety mortal. Yet, standing at the side of the stage, Semionova permitted her center of gravity to sink and her posture with it as if waiting for eternity on the slowest check-out line at her local supermarket. Sylvia the ballerina and disciple of Diana should never resemble a garden variety mortal. Her grasp of Ashton’s musicality was equally variable. He often ornaments a phrase with steps like grace notes, revealing the wit or inner workings of his score. They’re hard to get right and risk looking fussy or jarring if they aren’t. Semionova was at her best during the last act when she could dispense with building a character and just dance. Her solo to the "Pizzicato" turned that familiar music into the source of celestial contentment: bright, sparkling, strong and delicate—a meeting of dew and diamonds.
Aminta, whose love for Sylvia initially seems fated to remain unrequited, was danced by Roberto Bolle. He brought much to the part just by walking onstage: good looks, beautiful line, superlative partnering skills, musical and expressive mime. Aminta’s participation in Act 2 amounts to about three gestures viewed from behind a scrim, but Bolle, in what is often considered a completely passive male role, reminded everyone why they were present: his love was a matter of life and death.
Jared Matthews is usually cast in roles that show off his line, placement and boyish modesty. He’s a reticent presence; you wonder what would happen if he pushed a little harder and projected a little further. Here was the answer. As Orion, the evil hunter, he was menacing, muscular and all grown up. During Act 2, lust and inebriation ran neck and neck. The more the wine took hold, the more his head jutted forward like a beagle on the trail of a particularly wily fox (or foxy hunter). Matthews took the part and ran with it all the way.
Early in his career, Craig Salstein often risked going over the top. But his Eros was beautifully judged. Prancing, delicately and impishly through his comic turn before resuscitating Aminta, he let his articulate feet show the capriciousness of love, Bback on his altar, his outstretched arms grew outward like a tree’s branches and defined the realm and authority of a god.
Though it is the richest and most coherent production of the full-evening ballets on view at ABT this season, "Sylvia" is not Ashton at his finest. Even so, there is much to appreciate. The construction of the first act, culminating in Sylvia being pierced by Eros’s arrow is masterful. We are introduced to Aminta, then Sylvia, as Orion watches her from above. There are set pieces for the corps to draw out the tension. Then, a good twenty minutes in, the statue of Eros on the altar lets fly with the arrow. You realize that a dancer has been still for all that time and that Ashton has set his plot in motion. Ashton plays with opposites throughout: the familiar and the exotic, the natural and the manmade. Orion tries to tempt Sylvia with rich stuffs and jewels, manufactured objects. But she is a creature of nature; that’s one of the reasons she refuses him. Even on a day when Sylvia didn’t hold the evening together, the men in her life—and Ashton’s craft —made "Sylvia" shine.