After Soaring With Sylvia, A.B.T. Stumbles over Fokine

These past few years, American Ballet Theatre has been spreading its wings, and this past week it soared. The occasion was the company’s new production of Frederick Ashton’s three-act ballet Sylvia, which he created for Margot Fonteyn. The year was 1952, and Fonteyn-three years after her first American triumphs-was at the absolute peak of her abilities. She had solidified both her technique and her confidence, and Ashton pushed her even further. He gave her extreme technical challenges and required her to stretch her dramatic imagination: She was a cool virgin in the first act, a seductive vamp in the second, a classical assoluta in the third. And she progressed from Amazonian rejection of men to complete surrender to her lover-and to love.

That is, in fact, the subject of Sylvia, and indeed it’s Ashton’s great subject: Love conquers all. (You could say that Balanchine’s great subject is Love eludes all.) In ballet after ballet, Ashton satisfies our need to believe in love’s power-and demonstrates his own need to believe in it. And in Sylvia, as in La Fille Mal Gardée, The Dream, The Two Pigeons et al., the rapture of love finds its highest expression in a final ecstatic duet. Is there anything more tender, more moving, than the way Aminta, Sylvia’s shepherd lover, gently places his hands on her temples to support her? It’s so simple and personal, yet so original, that the first time you see it you almost gasp with pleasure.

If the actual story had the resonance of the subject, Sylvia would be a total masterpiece, like Fille. But entertaining as it is, this mock-heroic Arcadian romance about one of the goddess Diana’s nymphs doesn’t carry much weight. Its deepest lesson is taught in the first act, certainly the strongest of the three. Here we see the nymph as a bold huntress tauntingly shaking her bow at the statue of Eros that’s presiding over the scene, and here we witness the futility of denying and defying love. After Sylvia’s arrow “kills” Aminta, Eros’ far more powerful arrow awakens Sylvia’s heart. The extraordinary mastery that Ashton displays from the first moment, when six faun-like creatures cavort nimbly in the glade, to the last, when Sylvia has obeyed the inexorable commands of Eros, makes this act entirely satisfying-and, in a way, complete. Because, at this point, love has conquered all. From here on in, everything is mere plot.

Sylvia is based on the 1876 Paris Opéra ballet, made to the great score by Léo Delibes, the composer of Coppélia. The complicated story is from Tasso. Just after Sylvia succumbs to Aminta (and Eros), she’s abducted by Orion, a wicked hunter, and carried off to his camp. There, disdainfully rejecting the jewels his concubines offer her, she wards off the lascivious Orion, leading him on while getting him drunk, and is eventually rescued by Eros. This is not promising material. There’s a brilliant duet for Orion’s two slaves and a happy chance for the ballerina to be sexy in a good cause, but the entire act is a serious let-down after the perfection and profundity of what’s preceded it.

The final act is full to bursting, with three pairs of mythological figures (including Apollo and Terpsichore), a pair of frisky goats, the nine Muses, a batch of spring attendants, a batch of summer attendants, Sylvia’s attendants, the chaste Diana (quite cross at Sylvia’s transformation into a girl in love) with her attendants, a foursome of young trumpeters-yet even if it’s overstuffed, it comes together through Ashton’s genius for design and flow. Finally, Eros brings Diana to heel by reminding her of her own passion for Endymion. When even the chaste goddess bows to Eros, Love has conquered all-all over again.

With its wonderful music, moving subject, endless invention and extraordinary opportunities for a ballerina, Sylvia triumphed at the Met-not a surprise, since back in the 50’s, when I last saw it, it was a rousing success here, appreciated more than it had been in England. But back then it had Fonteyn, and although each of the three Sylvias I saw last week was exemplary in her way, no one of them approached her in variety, musicality or simple radiant charm.

Gillian Murphy, a dancer of prodigious technique, was completely dominating; she’s so strong that she’s free to do anything, and her performance was open, large and compelling. I found her athleticism in Act I a little too overt, and she doesn’t possess the full palette of feeling the role requires, but she gave a consummate performance, even if she wasn’t a consummate Sylvia.

Michele Wiles was eager and appealing, if a little too coltish. The relish with which she attacked the role was charming and carried her through, but someone should explain to her that smiling is a crucial weapon in a dancer’s armory when used strategically, not a state of being.

To my astonishment, Paloma Herrera, whose work I consistently resist, was in some ways the most satisfactory of the Sylvias. She’s recovered from the distressing brittleness and weakness she was displaying several years ago, and she gave the subtlest response to the emotional progression of the role. If only she had Fonteyn’s glorious line! And if only Murphy had Fonteyn’s dramatic genius … and if only Wiles had Fonteyn’s womanly magic ….

No matter. The full-length Sylvia, last performed in 1965, has been gloriously restored to us, and has given A.B.T. a bona fide hit. Basking in its glow, and grateful for the company’s far-better-late-than-never embrace of Ashton over the past several years, we can forgive it all its Raymonda s and Eugene Onegin s (and worse)-particularly since we have the option of avoiding them.

The company’s other big gamble of the season came directly on the heels of Sylvia and is more problematical. An all-Fokine evening? For all I know, the last such event at A.B.T. was the memorial program in the fall of 1942, shortly after Fokine’s death. In a sense, the company owed everything to him-it was his participation at the very beginning, back in 1940, that legitimized Lucia Chase’s audacious undertaking.

Les Sylphides, revolutionary back in 1909 when Diaghilev first brought it to the West, is now so overfamiliar that unless it’s danced with exquisite feeling, it’s soporific. The first cast this season was invigorated by Murphy’s dynamic performance in the role originally danced by Pavlova. Here, her confidence and strength were beautifully shaded and restrained; this role can be a crucial passage for her from powerful virtuoso to artist. Stella Abrera, second-cast, was also highly effective-you can see her growing from season to season as she moves out of her exotica persona into the general repertory. The second cast also gave us an exquisite Zhong-Jing Fang in the Prelude.

As the Poet, both Maxim Beloserkovsky and Marcelo Gomes had a romantic presence, long, handsome legs and a becoming modesty-Gennadi Saveliev was perhaps more modest than necessary-but the otherworldly quality that we see in the photographs of Nijinsky was not in evidence. Best of all was the seriousness and commitment of the corps. They have a touch of stiffness that may well reflect their trying so hard, but far better earnestness than the listlessness that’s infected so many Sylphides in the past.

The big test was Petrouchka, and the results were mixed. The production, overseen by Gary Chryst (a memorable Petrouchka in his Joffrey days), is highly lucid, full of careful detail and fun to watch. The set and costumes, after the originals by Alexandre Benois, were a touch too vivid-there could have been a little less vibrancy and a little more atmosphere. In the crowd scenes, you could tell that everyone was working to fulfill Fokine’s demand that they all have individual and differentiated lives. Certain cameos stood out: Monique Meunier as the Chief Nursemaid; Carmen Corella as a Gypsy; Maria Riccetto as a Streetdancer; Danny Tidwell as the Devil; Buck Collins and Craig Salstein as the Grooms (Salstein also stood out as Sylvia’s Eros). Chryst himself was a powerful and threatening presence as the Charlatan. (In the same role, Frederic Franklin, in his 90’s, was in full control, if a little underpowered.)

But Petrouchka lives or dies by its three puppets. Amanda McKerrow, Xiomara Reyes and Abrera were cast as the Ballerina. None of them had the traditional red splotches of rouge on her cheeks, and none of them suggested the role’s vacant coquettishness-they were simply vacant. The strongest of the Moors was Isaac Stappas, who conveyed the role’s murderous brutality along with the stupidity and self-absorption. Gomes was less dangerous-an oaf rather than a killer.

Of the Petrouchkas, the most moving was Herman Cornejo, who, without oversentimentalizing, suggested a resigned desperation. But Petrouchka-part clown, part puppet, part tragic hero-requires a dramatic genius and rarely finds one, which leaves the ballet with a fatal weakness at its center. Stronger than any performance I’ve ever seen of the role is the photographic documentation of Nijinsky. (And why not try to reproduce his amazing makeup?)

The image of Nijinsky also hovers over Le Spectre de la Rose. Both Cornejo and Angel Corella have the bravura leaps and spins that the role of the Rose demands, yet they gave very different performances. Cornejo was more clean-cut, boyish; Corella more androgynous, Spectre-like (he was also a superb Aminta, but then he’s a superb everything). The piece is pretty rickety, though, and no one dancing the Girl seemed to know what to do with her. Studying the Karsavina iconography might help. Karsavina coached Fonteyn in the role, but who is left who understands it? This is the problem with Fokine today-in his ballets, atmosphere and personality are everything. The actual steps can easily be taught, but the ambience of the Ballets Russes is a thing of the past.

Nothing makes this clearer than the final work on the A.B.T. program, the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. It’s hard to believe, but in the first Diaghilev season, this was the piece that really ignited the audience. Today, it’s not even living camp-it’s dead camp. Did the sophisticated Parisians of 1909 really see in these ridiculous Tartar warriors, brandishing their bows as they charge downstage, all the splendor and barbarity of Mother Russia? Were the Princess and the Maidens, in their filmy harem costumes and their barest of midriffs, anything other than ludicrous, then as now? (Of course, we’ve been spoiled by Maria Montez in Cobra Woman.) Only Carlos Acosta as the Warrior Chieftain on the second night made anything of all this-he was so over the top in energy, thrust and slam-bang conviction that you could almost convince yourself there was something there (other than the theme of “Stranger in Paradise”). And then you looked around at all those nice young kids in their Robin-Hood-and-his-Merry-Men garb pretending to be Tartars, and the bubble burst. Exhuming Polovtsian Dances was a very bad idea.

So is Fokine viable today? On the whole, no. So-so Sylphides will come along regularly, and Petrouchka, Firebird, Spectre, The Dying Swan occasionally. Maybe someone will take a chance on Carnaval. But almost 100 years after Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karsavina, nearly all these works have lost their essence. On the final page of Fokine’s memoirs, his son enjoins us not to “judge him by the posthumous representations of his work, but rather by the influence he exerted and the road he built for others to follow …. His ballets, like the Forum of Rome, will crumble and become isolated relics.” Taking those words to heart, let us now join hands and pray that A.B.T. doesn’t follow up the Polovtsian Dances with Schéhérazade.