Frederick Ashton's Sylvia is a ballet in which flesh-and-blood nymphs drink from painted streams, statues shoot silver arrows and gods descend to sort out the plot. This Royal Ballet revival, commissioned for Ashton's centenary, is the first performance since the Sixties. It's full of steps and scene-painting, but on opening night it wasn't quite a lost classic.
The ballet was choreographed in 1952, with a production that carefully evoked French 19th-century ballet, the period of Delibes's pretty 1876 score. The designs, by Robin and Christopher Ironside, are full of perspective-painted forests and temples, sailing boats and Greek key pattern.
The plot is remarkably silly: the shepherd Aminta loves the huntress Sylvia, who rejects him until the god Eros shoots her with the arrow of love. Then she is abducted by the wicked hunter Orion, rescued by Eros, rebuked by the goddess Diana and reunited with her beloved.
Ashton kept tinkering with Sylvia, finally cutting the ballet to a single act. Christopher Newton's production returns to three acts, with steps recovered from films and dancers' memories. It's a confident reconstruction, strongly danced. The footwork is brilliant, terrifying; even attendants whip through fouettés and dashing shifts of direction. The ballerina has everything from hops on pointes to hair-raising fish dives.
Darcey Bussell sails over the technical hurdles. Her feet are strong and beautifully articulated, her line bold, her jump magnificent. Yet her Sylvia goes in and out of focus. Bussell will bourrée forwards with expansive grace, then lose the precision needed to clinch a phrase. When she realises she loves Aminta, she rises slowly on to pointes with touching gentleness, rising to her own thoughts. But she isn't yet in full command of this complex role.
The ballet, too, stops short of complete authority. Sylvia is full of characteristic Ashton - lovely poses, bright steps - but it often misses full theatrical impact. Eros (Martin Harvey) stands breathlessly still for half an act, then moves with swift authority. It's almost a coup de théâtre, but not quite. Is it the revival, or the ballet? Perhaps later performances will sharpen Sylvia's impact. On this first night, I kept remembering Ashton's lovely Daphnis and thinking that he handled it all better then.
Everything comes together in the last act, a celebration divertissement. There are bouncy numbers, cheerfully danced, for subsidiary couples. The dances for Sylvia and Aminta are gorgeous, full of glowing classical invention. Sylvia's famous solo is dazzling, fiendish footwork phrased into a clear, triumphant dance. Her duet with Aminta combines fireworks and tenderness.
Jonathan Cope is a touching Aminta, phrasing dance and mime with graceful attention; Thiago Soares is an exuberant Orion. This Sylvia is lovingly restored and brightly danced.
In repertory to 3 December (020-7304 4000)Reuse content