Lynn René Bayley
, May 2011
I approached this performance with trepidation due to the stills of it. A Sylvia showing shepherds carrying nymphs across the stage like life-sized Barbie dolls? An Amor wearing a hip-hop outfit and backwards baseball cap? A sparse stage setting that looks like one of Wieland Wagner’s Bayreuth productions? Starting the video, I was even more startled to see classic ballet moves mixed with spasmodic modern dance steps. No, no, this isn’t Sylvia at all!
Yet, as the performance progressed, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in and enjoying this performance for what it was, rather than what it was not. Neumeier fills the stage extremely well and, as a former dancer himself, he knows exactly how to create a continuous flow and tell a story. Moreover, the principals—five star dancers in the five solo roles!—are not only outstanding in movement but also exceptionally adept at mime and facial expression. You don’t need to know the story in advance; their movements and faces tell it for you. Yes, of course the story is changed somewhat; in the end, Sylvia does not die (and what exactly would a young, healthy woman have died from anyway except a make-believe illness?), but goes off with an older man who can give her stability, knowing in her maturation process that the excitement and stimulation of youth are all good fun but not what she is seeking for her future. Sylvia is no longer a cardboard figure of the old French ballet school, but a woman who grows, matures, and makes her own decisions. What a strange concept—an étoile with a brain! Heaven protect us from such things! (Note to readers: I am being facetious.)
I watched the bonus feature, erroneously described on the box as “interviews with the artists,” after the performance, but I would recommend that viewers watch it first. The interview is actually with Paris Opera Ballet dance director Brigitte Lefèvre, who explains why she decided to update Sylvia, and choreographer Neumeier, who explains his concept. Neumeier was fascinated by a production that never happened, the one commissioned by Serge Diaghilev in 1900, which turned out to be too traditional for his taste and so was scrapped. But Neumeier thought to recast Sylvia in a sort of modern Ballets Russes mode, knowing from his long personal experience the kinds of ballets and balletic characters that Diaghilev produced. Not a copy, mind you, but a tribute. He was also fascinated by the erotic quality of the music, and so emphasized the characters’ sensuality. I give him high marks for doing this very tastefully. He also omitted two numbers from the score, and added some music from Delibes’ earlier ballet Le Sorce to extend Diana’s solo.
The result is something absolutely fascinating. Neumeier’s characters constantly alternate modern and classic dance, but it keeps you watching because you never know what’s going to come next, and the continuous flow of the dance in every aspect, from the soloists to the corps, is integrated in a way that is never static. Indeed, even when the characters scarcely move on stage, there is always some movement going that keeps the flow. It also helps that each soloist is a virtuoso—José Martinez, in fact, asked to be included in this film to re-create Endymion, which he performed in the debut of this version. Nicolas Le Riche, as Amor/Orion, has elevation almost as good as Baryshnikov in his prime, which is saying something. In fact, all the soloists are so good that they could have switched roles with no loss of quality.
The production is also full of sly, humorous moments, too numerous and subtle to describe here. In this respect, Neumeier’s work bears a kinship to that of Frederick Ashton, who also injected humor into his productions (including his more traditional version of Sylvia). Those familiar with traditional stagings of Sylvia may still not like what he does here. I’ve read some of these complaints online, but cannot agree with them. A work of art is only as good as what it provokes in the viewer, and great art was never meant to be comfortable. The consistent challenge to the viewer that Neumeier’s Sylvia evokes is on a very high artistic level. Despite its use of modern sets, costumes, and dance, it bears little resemblance to the Eurotrash productions that have ruined so many opera performances, but is, rather, closer in style to Stein Winge’s superb updating of Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina (Opus Arte DVD 0989). This is a performance you simply must see.