Houston Ballet Puts a Unique Stamp on a Ballet Classic

Most ballet stories are quite simple in structure and tone. Complicated story lines don’t often lend themselves well to an art form where movement progresses the story. Consider Sleeping Beauty where a young princess plucks her finger, goes into a deep sleep and awakened by a kiss from a handsome prince. Or Raymonda where a Hungarian princess’ love is coveted by a dark Saracen, who is eventually defeated by the knight Jean de Brienne, leading to a marriage between the Hungarian princess and the heroic knight.

Of all ballet storylines, Sylvia has perhaps the most simplistic narrative. In huntress in Greek goddess Diana’s retinue falls in love with a handsome shepherd, Aminta. There love is slightly thwarted by evil hunter Orion; however, in the end Aminta and Sylvia marry in nuptials that are attended by the gods.

That simplicity of story worked very well when most of these classic ballets premiered, the mid-1860s–1890s; an era of refinement, feminine modesty, and a rigid class structure. Consider that all most classical ballets include the aristocracy, a chaste heroine, and for the most part, a grand and/or royal wedding.

Mask from “Sylvia”

But, we don’t currently live our lives in the shadows of the aristocracy and age-old social mores. Women are far more self-assured and independent, and many of us establish our own rules and morays.In the wake of this modern self-actualization, Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director Stanton Welch AM is taking a different approach to Sylvia. Scheduled to premier in Houston’s on February 21— New York audiences were given a sneak peak at the Guggenheim’s Works in Progress— Welch’s Sylvia goes beyond the traditional story narrative. Welch looks at three couples in the ballet instead of just the dynamic between Sylvia and the Shepherd. In his version of Sylvia, Welch brilliantly weaves the relationships between three couples, Sylvia and the Shepherd, Artemis and Orion, and Psyche and Eros. Welch even substitutes the Greek names for the well-known Roman names.

Houston Ballet’s “Sylvia” cast: Karina Gonzalez, Connor Walsh, and Jessica Collado. Images courtesy of Houston Ballet

There is a big diversion from the original Sylvia in Welch’s version. Beyond the addition of two principal couples, Greek names in place of Roman names, Welch approaches his version as an attempt to empower the principal women in the cast. Gone are the traditional approaches to pas de deux that ballet audiences may be familiar with. There is a lot of women partnering their male counterparts, ladies lifting the men, and in general a much more aggressive approach to the choreography for Sylvia, Artemis, and Psyche. Though there are some lovely, gentle steps for the three heroines—that aptly expresses the Leo Delibes’ score—for the most part, Welch goes beyond delicate pizzicato movement. And instead of the corps de ballet being used as merely stage decoration or the reflection of the lead ballerina, Welch employs the corps de ballet dancers to help advance the narrative.

In Welch’s Sylvia, audiences will find more fully fleshed out characters. With Sylvia having to choose between her commitment to Artemis or her love of the Shepherd. Hmm, a woman choosing between love and work; sound familiar, of course, it does!!

—William S. Gooch

 

 

 

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