Beauty and Beyond: ABT’s Premiere of Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country Is a Highlight of the Season

But 'The Sleeping Beauty' still suffers from its Disneyish set

The other gratifying event of the season also involved Ashton: the return of his version of the full-evening ballet Sylvia, created for Fonteyn in 1952. Sylvia’s great distinction lies in its ravishingly melodious score by Delibes—together with his Coppélia and La Source, it constitutes a triptych worthy of comparison with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker, and indeed Tchaikovsky revered Delibes in general and Sylvia in particular. The plot involves a huntress who is a votary of Diana, the goddess of chastity; a simple shepherd; an evil hunter who kidnaps the heroine; and Eros himself, the god of love. Needless to say, everything turns out happily for boy and girl in this Arcadian fantasy, because the ballet’s real subject—Ashton’s eternal subject—is love itself. Nowhere is this more explicit than in Sylvia, in which Eros convinces Diana to release Sylvia from her vows and permit her to marry her swain. In Ashton—here, in La Fille Mal Gardée, in The Dream, in The Two Pigeons—love conquers all.

Sylvia is a complicated role. She’s an Amazon in the first act, a sad prisoner and a faking-it seductress in the second, a rapturous lover in the third. Semionova had a lovely quality in the lyrical passages, and she has the technique, but she doesn’t have the athletic command in the opening; one problem is a kind of lethargy in her arms. Gillian Murphy is the company’s paradigmatic huntress—when she shoots you with an arrow, you’re shot. And she’s found the softness the latter scenes require.

Osipova, alas, was hurt and canceled the season’s last two weeks, so we missed seeing her in this role. She was highly visible, however, in those go-for-broke spectacles Don Quixote and Le Corsaire, in which she can scorch and burn better than anyone else on the ballet stage today. Oddly, though, her finest moment in Don Q was in the formal, quiet vision scene—no flashing fans, no swirls of the skirt, no clicking heels, just pure and exquisite classicism. Vasiliev matched her, flash for flash and swirl for swirl. In Le Corsaire, Osipova ignores the fact that Medora is meant to be vulnerable and at times melancholy. She and her guy dance up a storm more convincing than the actual storm the libretto requires—somehow, in rethinking this production’s costumes and sets, ABT has weakened the whole effect: money down the drain. Craig Salstein—always improving, always evolving—was a fierce Birbanto; Boylston was a moving Gulnare. The peerless Herman Cornejo was as wicked as you would have him be as the slave trader. But it was a terrible idea to have Simkin shirtless as Ali the Slave in the famous Corsaire pas de trois. He’s so slight, so seemingly undernourished, you want to rush up onto the stage and feed him a chocolate malted. Yes, Nureyev bared his chest, but Nureyev had a chest.

There were three other full-evening ballets, each one on for a week. It is a matter of principle with me not to see Onegin, and I recused myself from Kevin McKenzie’s treatment of Swan Lake on the grounds that it’s so irritating. And then there was the Kenneth Macmillan Romeo and Juliet—Lift that girl! Slash that sword! Smooch that harlot! Against my better judgment, I went to one performance—there were eight separate casts—in order to see Semionova and Hallberg. She was appealing, he was ardent. There was an unthrilling Mercutio and a blank Tybalt. About the rest—and there’s a lot of it—let there be silence.