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EROS BESTS ORION IN MORRIS’S `SYLVIA’ FOR SAN FRANCISCO BALLET

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on July 27, 2006.

July 27 (Bloomberg) — If there’s such a thing as a postmodern pastoral, Mark Morris has created it. His three-act ballet “Sylvia,” choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet in 2004, received its New York premiere last night as the centerpiece of the California troupe’s week-long slot in the Lincoln Center Festival.

The work’s many beauties and self-contradictions threaten to baffle and promise to enchant its audience. Set to Delibes’ deliquescent score, with ingenious decor by Allen Moyer and witty faux-Greek costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, it is pretty and raunchy, charming and funny at the same time.

Morris gives inventive twists to the classical-dance vocabulary and classical-dance conventions. He also displays a teasing reverence for dance history.

His “Sylvia” harks way back to the time when dances were populated by characters from Greek mythology. It also recalls and reimagines devices from 19th-century touchstones like the mystical Kingdom of the Shades scene from “La Bayadere,” with its evocative use of veils, and “Le Corsaire,” with its just slightly vulgar, harem-trousered odalisques.

The ballet’s libretto derives from “Aminta,” a celebrated pastoral play in verse, written by Torquato Tasso in 1573. In capsule form: Sylvia, a devotee of Diana, goddess of the hunt and chastity, scorns the advances of her shepherd suitor, Aminta. Orion, a wicked hunter, abducts her, carrying her away to his rocky cave. A shape-changing Eros intervenes repeatedly to straighten things out and deliver a happy ending.

Morris’s Characters

In addition to his dance innovations, Morris gives the characters his personal imprint. Aminta is a lovely, if utterly passive, fellow, an adorable dreamer who’s useless when it comes to rescuing a sweetheart in trouble.

Sylvia, a proto-feminist, is feisty enough for them both. She deflects her would-be rapist and his comically bestial slaves by getting them drunk on wine from grapes juiced by her own pretty feet and instructing them in Greek folk dancing.

Eros is conceived as a very fey character with a quicksilver technique. Danced and acted perfectly by Jaime Garcia Castilla, the figure gives the proceedings an up-to-date ironic edge.

The loveliest extended passage in the piece is its opening. Here, galumphing satyrs, frolicking dryads and fleet-footed naiads get together in a sylvan glen, finally snuggling down in erotic menages a trois.

The most striking short items are a pair of solos for Aminta, one pining, one triumphant. They were danced to perfection by the proficient and utterly disarming Gonzalo Garcia.

Two Sylvias

I didn’t much care for Yuan Yuan Tan as Sylvia. Granted, her acting is sincere and technique highly developed. Still, she looks as attenuated and artificial as a body in a Mannerist painting. Elizabeth Miner plays the role tonight; a videotape of her performance indicates that she’s a natural for it.

Morris’s “Sylvia” doesn’t seriously rival Frederick Ashton’s version, created in 1952 for the Royal Ballet and recently added to the repertory of American Ballet Theatre. But it offers more fun and food for thought than most dances I’ve seen this year.

The San Francisco Ballet, America’s first professional classical-dance company (founded in 1933), grew from being a regional troupe into one that is nationally recognized.

It’s not yet a world-class institution like the ABT, the New York City Ballet and the big guns in London, Paris, St. Petersburg and Moscow. But under Helgi Tomasson, who became SFB’s artistic director in 1985, that’s what it’s aiming for.

The company’s opening night program on Tuesday understandably showcased as many ranking dancers as possible in a dizzying cross-section of its varied repertory.

Traditional Technique

It was clear that the dancers’ technique has a firm classical base — no surprise to those who remember the purity of Tomasson’s own dancing as a principal with the New York City Ballet.

If too many of the performers seemed short and stocky, their evident talent and unaffected manner compensated for the dearth of prince and princess bodies. The choreography paid its respects to classics of the past two centuries, and the hot dance-makers of several recent decades were fully represented.

Excerpts from Tomasson’s own ballets confirmed a gift, evident from his very first work, that may have been sacrificed to his career as a ballet master.

However, Mark Morris’s claim, in interviews, that the San Francisco Ballet is the best classical company in North America seems to me exaggerated.

The San Francisco Ballet performs at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, through July 30. Information: http://www.lincolncenter.org . Tickets: (1)(212) 721-6500.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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