State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne
Be prepared to be delighted by The Australian Ballet’s premiere of Stanton Welch’s enchanting Sylvia, which was first danced earlier this year by Welch’s Houston Ballet. In this collaboration between the two companies, gods and demi-gods, nymphs and naughty fauns abound. But there is no doubt that the power lies with Artemis and her army of amazonian warriors, clad in needle-sharp tunics of armour. The action moves between contrasting realms - from the heavens of the mythological Greek gods to a rustic mortal idyl. The characters are fantastically fanciful with many artistic liberties deployed to send the story into wild and wonderful directions.
I can't find anything not to love about this production. The choreography is gorgeous - transfixing and always compelling. There is strength, delicacy, beautiful pas de deux and fabulous ensemble work. Each character (and there are lots) carries its own physical mood and signature language. We have impish, explosive displays, lilting and lyrical romanticism, whispers of sprite-like weightlessness as well as steely power, all in one ballet. Sylvia is also a wonderfully successful synthesis of choreography, music, lighting, projection, set design and costuming.
The story seems daunting at first glance and there is even a colour-coded explainer to help those in doubt. This sets up a slightly anxiety-inducing sense that there may be a test afterward and I frantically tried to memorise the ins and outs of the characters, their motivations and relationships, just in case. In reality, the story is much more straight-forward and easy to follow. The ballet naturally carries you along in its thrall and every moment is magic.
The main threads of the narrative involve three female characters - Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, Sylvia, a demi-god and warrior in Artemis’s army and Psyche, a mortal. They each have a "love interest" (Orion, the Shepherd and Eros respectively) and naturally the paths of true love are fraught and require divine intervention (and precision archery) to be righted.
We first meet Artemis (danced on opening night by Robyn Hendricks) on the battle-field with her army of formidable female warriors. Hendricks brings her renowned exquisite technique and virtuosity to the role. She is matched by the steely power and sharp elegance of her archers who dispatch their enemies with cold efficiency. The female ensemble is thrilling in every appearance they make and the choreography gives them a very pointed sense of attack as they advance toward the audience purposively. The costume design by Jérôme Kaplan is nothing short of sensational - especially stunning are the silver tunics that move as if weighted for battle. Helmets and bows and arrows complete the army’s battle-dress.
The role of Sylvia was danced by Ako Kondo and she brought nuance and character development to the role. The role offers opportunities for comedic sweetness earlier and displays greater depth over the course of the ballet. Kondo is both delicate and strong.
Benedicte Bemet as Psyche is also a roundly realised character. Hailing from the mortal world, her slightly bewildered character provides an endearing, all-too-human touch. Overall, she is ethereal, fluid and light-as-air, channelling softness and grace.
The male dancers, Adam Bull (Orion), Kevin Jackson (the Shepherd) and Marcus Morelli (Eros) are all terrific but Morelli is more than that - he delights and thrills with his extraordinary fire-cracker explosive leaps and gravity-defying mid-air suspensions. He has a completely easeful quality to his dancing and his mischievous characterisation of Eros is light and pure joy to watch. Jackson as the doltish Shepherd is a lovely partner for Kondo, and equally finds his elegance and equanimity as the ballet unfolds.
The quartet of trouble-making fauns who appear throughout are a great highlight. Their interaction is magical, comical and perfectly timed. The cheeky, trouble-making crew leap, bound, twirl and make us giggle time and again.
All elements of this ballet have an enchanted harmony. The Delibes music is sumptuous, lyrical and played to perfection under the baton of Nicolette Frailon. The set, together with projection and lighting, creates a world that is completely involving.
The costumes show lovely contrasts and inventiveness but are always coherent with the production. It is no surprise to learn that Kaplan is the creator of both costume and set design. The projections and lighting enhance but do not overwhelm. All elements work to support the choreography. The dancing really showcases the technical and artistic prowess of the Australian Ballet in 2019. Go and see this production as it tours the country (and for those in Sydney, an extra treat is in store with Misty Copeland guesting in some performances).
- SUSAN BENDALL