Morris Toys With Sylvia; San Francisco’s Ace Dancers

“I am tired of the ‘Six.’ I am weary of Erik Satie. I am fed up with Malipiero. The music

“I am tired of the ‘Six.’ I am weary of Erik Satie. I am fed up with Malipiero. The music of Zoltán Kodály has begun to pall on me. I have consigned my Arnold Schoenberg scores to the flames …. ” So, in 1922, Carl Van Vechten, at that time America’s most sophisticated writer on dance, began his love letter to Léo Delibes. He had, he says, just “stumbled upon the score of Coppélia: the distinguished, spirited, singing, luminous melodies of Delibes rang again in my ears … and, quite suddenly, all ‘modern’ music and dancing assumed the quality of fustian.”

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It happens every time: The music from Coppélia, from La Source, from Sylvia comes on, and you’re caught up in Delibes’ ravishing—and supremely danceable—tunes and orchestration. Ashton loved him. Balanchine loved him. And Tchaikovsky famously wrote to a friend that Sylvia was “the first ballet in which the music constitutes not only the chief but the sole point of interest. What charm, what elegance, what a wealth of melody, rhythm and harmony! It put me to shame. Had I known that music, I would not have written Swan Lake.”

Sylvia was created in 1876, six years after Coppélia, and it had the honor of being the first ballet to be staged at Garnier’s magnificent new Paris opera house. It held the stage for almost 20 years, but after that was seen only occasionally, mostly in Russia, until Ashton re-created it for Margot Fonteyn in 1952, in the version A.B.T. has recently been presenting at the Met.

Why hasn’t Sylvia become a staple of the repertory? The reason can only be the weak story, which unlike the stories of the few 19th-century ballets that have survived, seems to have no resonance: It’s pure plot, and conventional plot at that. Do we really care whether the dopey shepherd Aminta ends up with the bossy Sylvia, that votary of the goddess Diana? Or how Sylvia escapes from the cave of Orion, the wicked hunter who abducts her? How can so pointless a story carry us through three acts of dance, however sublime the music? Frederick Ashton found the key in his own profound belief in the power of love—or of Eros, as he’s called in the ballet. And, of course, in his exquisite choreographic skill (though even the Ashton version isn’t a complete success).

Now Mark Morris has made an entirely new Sylvia, and we’ve been waiting a long time for the San Francisco Ballet, for whom he created it, to bring it to New York. I can’t remember anticipating a new ballet so eagerly. Alas, it came, I saw, but I wasn’t conquered. I don’t know what I expected—perhaps some kind of reinvention of the story and a new, highly personal choreographic approach. What we got was a Sylvia more cute than feeling—conventional in its relation to classical ballet yet thin in classical vocabulary. Morris has made other ballets, but the ones I’ve seen tend to look like modern dance on pointe. Sylvia looks as if he’s trying to master ballet itself, and it doesn’t work. From the very start, the going is weak: Dryads, Satyrs and Naiads—four each—gambol and cavort around, and then gambol and cavort some more; it’s repetitious and ungainly. When Sylvia enters with her band of virgins, she has nothing to dance—during the beautiful valse lente, she’s drifting back and forth on a swing. Only the third-act pas de deux provides a well-made stretch of classicism, and it falls like rain on parched earth. Opening night, you could sense the audience’s gratitude.

Morris’ best act is the second, partly because it’s up for grabs—there aren’t any famous set pieces, and nothing much happens except that Sylvia, trapped in the cave, gets Orion and his eight goons drunk by stamping on some grapes to make wine. The goons are threatening, then comic, and there’s a charming sequence when first Sylvia, then the thugs, dart across a big rock pile and jeté off into waiting arms—it’s the one genuinely witty (as opposed to jokey) moment in the ballet. At the third performance, when at last we had an appropriate Sylvia (Vanessa Zahorian) and an Orion more love-besotted than dangerous, her rescue by Eros hardly seemed necessary: think Snow White and the Eight Dwarfs. Clever, resolute Sylvia had things well under control. (Zahorian, by the way, showed from her first step in the big pas de deux what a lovely, musical dancer she is. No wonder she looked out of things in the first act, when she had nothing real to dance.)

If Sylvia is about anything, it’s the conflict between Eros and Diana (Eros wins). Ashton takes this seriously; Morris takes it comically. His Eros capers around in disguise—he’s a comic sorcerer who brings Aminta back to life when he’s shot by one of Sylvia’s arrows; he’s a pirate in rajah drag who brings Sylvia to the last-act bacchanal among a boatload of harem-type slaves (she’s in bilious pink; they’re in vermillion and tangerine). Morris gives his Eros some amusing material, but makes things hard for him with the clumsy disrobing sequences, when the god has to shed his disguises and make himself known. The staging for Eros goes wrong at the start, when we see him surreptitiously clambering up next to his statue. Or is this awkwardness meant to be part of the joke?

But the real letdown is that Morris, the most musical of choreographers, has failed to respond deeply to the score. His ballet is all surface, some of it pleasing, but Delibes’ music is far deeper. (Not that you’d have known it from the tame reading of the score, conducted by San Francisco’s music director, Martin West. Listen to the recording by Richard Bonynge and you’ll see why it’s not farfetched to think of Wagner at certain moments.) As a result, Mark Morris’ Sylvia is neither a triumph nor a disaster; it’s a disappointment.

AS FOR THE SAN FRANCISCO COMPANY ITSELF, it took a while before you could see why it’s universally considered one of the finest in the country. Opening night was one of those ghastly bits-and-pieces gala programs in which everything rushes past in a blur and nothing looks good. It began with William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (just as irritating as when the Kirov did it in Washington a few weeks ago) and ended with a noticeably ragged performance of the third movement from Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces. In between were 13 snippets, ranging from a dreary Don Quixote pas de deux to an excerpt from Yuri Possokhov’s Reflections, featuring two superb dancers (Muriel Maffre and Damian Smith), some tall mirrors and steps of staggering ugliness. Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director, was represented by three uninspired works, as well as a dismal reworking of the Swan Lake pas de trios.

The quality of the company began to announce itself with Sylvia—not so much through the principals (Yuan Yuan Tan, for instance, was cast against type in the central role) but through the corps, with their beautiful feet and flexible, elegant carriage. Not until the mixed bill on the last night, though, did the company fully reveal its many and various strengths.

There were three ballets (every one of them too long). First, yet another Tomasson piece (7 for Eight) to Bach and, typical of his choreography going back to his City Ballet days, careful, derivative and not very interesting; an extended—overextended—new (2005) piece by Christopher Wheeldon called Quaternary (featuring not one but two lugubrious adagio duets for Tan and Smith), which would have been twice as interesting at half the length; and Forsythe’s Artifact Suite, another endless but sporadically effective exercise in mass, juiced-up neoclassicism, punctuated by sterile echoes of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements and Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

These three works were far too similar in tone to constitute a good program. You could call the genre “Earnest Modern.”

But the dancers! On the whole, the men are even more remarkable than the women. There was a section of the Forsythe featuring two groups of five men each, every one of them centered, virile, energized and attractive. They’re not the individual superstar virtuosos of A.B.T.; they may, in fact, be too uniform. But I don’t want to sound negative: No other American company has such depth in its male contingent. And several of them do stand out—Smith, Pascal Molat, Gonzalo Garcia, Joan Boada. The women are a little less extraordinary, but they, too, are beautifully trained and they’re more differentiated than the men. Yuan Yuan Tan, with her lovely line and ballerina glamour, is a very different kind of dancer from the grand, powerful Maffre, the quick, appealing Tina LeBlanc, the intense Lorena Feijoo (who was as effective in the Forsythe piece as she was charmless in the Don Q. pas de deux).

I have strong reservations about its repertory, but San Francisco Ballet strikes me as deeply virtuous, and I can’t wait to see it again. Even so, it lacks, for me, a crucial element of great dancing: large-scale personal expressivity. Like most companies, it reflects the characteristics of its leader. Tomasson was an immaculate classicist—elegant, tasteful, contained, never vulgar, always correct and frequently charming; that’s what his company is like, too (several of the men actually look like him). But he never fully absorbed Balanchine’s insistence on dancing full-out: His movement was always measured, his presence small-scale. Peter Martins was a cool, smooth dancer, Edward Villella was explosive and full of feeling, and their companies reflect their qualities. How could it be otherwise? Splendid as Tomasson’s San Francisco is, I can’t help wanting more—dancers not only superbly trained, hard-working and personable, but dancers who thrill.

Morris Toys With Sylvia;  San Francisco’s Ace Dancers