Swoon for a Swain

Julie Kent is both regal and lyrical in long-awaited restaging of “Sylvia”

Not many can say they’ve seen “Sylvia,” Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballet that’s been in the closet since the ’60s.

But the original set was discovered and redone by Peter Farmer for the magnificent romantic spectacle, newly set on American Ballet Theatre and performed at the Metropolitan Opera House through June 15.

Ashton created “Sylvia” for Margot Fonteyn who led London’s Royal Ballet in its premiere at Covent Garden in 1952. But it has been put away for roughly 40 years. Christopher Newton, who danced in the original production, was able to reconstruct it from memory, his Benesh notes and barely decipherable footage of Fonteyn and Michael Somes in the first and third acts. Newton’s new staging premiered at Covent Garden in November. Three dancers performed “Sylvia” there and three principals from ABT are taking on the challenge here in New York.

In the June 4 matinee, Julie Kent glowed with the audience after her fine interpretation. The dancer, in her prime and a mother of a one-year-old son, balances abandon with forbearance in the difficult role with its range of emotions. Sylvia’s mood and style change with the circumstances of the story’s love triangle. It’s all sorted out with a hierarchy of helpers—the god Eros, the goddess Diana, extraordinarily entertaining slaves, a peasant faction and even two goats.

A party of huntresses with quivers and bows creates kaleidoscopic symmetry in the changing patterns of their dance. Carlos Lopez is Eros, the god of love who has several faces. Sometimes he comes down off his pedestal in the guise of a mysterious stranger, a sorcerer. As a mortal, his sandaled calves kick out in a folksy solo as he congratulates himself for uniting Sylvia with her lowly but true love, the shepherd Aminta, danced by the sweet Gennadi Saveliev, a Prince Charming of the painted steppes.

Sylvia is a fallen fairytale heroine, one of Diana’s nymphs who, having taken a vow of chastity, finds herself smitten with a shepherd. The lustful Orion has taken a shine to her and threatens to lead her astray. Sasha Radetsky dances the bore Orion with brutish authority. Sylvia sedates him with drink to avert his advances. He almost loses her in a lift but hangs onto his power to charm. She too loses her bearings with lust.

The second act gets murky. The departure from Orion’s den requires that scenic elements be mechanically exchanged. The locals pray to a small bronze figure of Eros and he charters a boat like the one in “Sleeping Beauty” to bring the lovelorn Sylvia to Aminta.

Orion knocks on the door of Diana’s (Kristi Boone) domicile and lightning strikes as he begs her to intercede. The lovers, Sylvia and Aminta, approach her seaside temple for her blessing. At first, she rebuffs the unlikely union but then remembers her own infatuation with the simple shepherd Endymion. The memory is realized as a tableau vivant in a rocky cavern of the painted backdrop. It’s magically lit by Mark Jonathan to divert our attention from the main storyline.

The story comes from a sonnet by Italian Renaissance poet and playwright Torquato Tasso, an homage to a beautiful woman. Léo Delibes was inspired to interpret it with a ballet score, and Ashton inspired by the music, choreographed the dance. The highlight of Ashton’s ballet and of Delibes’ score is a pas de deux in the third act when the lovers unite. It’s flanked by cheeky divertissements that provide both respite and preparation for the deeply emotional duet.

Kent’s intuitive timing drags out the beat of the music, expanding its romantic power. She surprises us with her ethereality in a joyful ending. She’s light as a feather in the arms of Saveliev; as the gentle Aminta almost drops Sylvia, though, she never quite touches the ground. The regal front she showed us in the first act gives way to extreme lyricism and happiness, but the backbone of her triumph remains.

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