No ballet composer is more revered than Tchaikovsky. The scores for Swan Lake, Sleeping Beautyand The Nutcrackerspeak for themselves. The three dominate the stage year after year, decade after decade. Productions can take many forms, coming and going according to inspiration, taste or whim, but the music is the anchor, known and greatly loved.

Lana Jones in a promotional image for The Australian Ballet’s Sylvia. Photo © Kate Longley

And yet here is Tchaikovsky on the subject of Léo Delibes’s Sylvia: “What charm and elegance, what riches in the melody, the rhythm, the harmony. I was ashamed. If I had known this music before, I would not have written Swan Lake.”

If you suspect this was a piece of insincere puffery, consider Tchaikovsky’s comment after seeing the first performance of Wagner’s Ringtetralogy at Bayreuth in 1876. “How many thousand times dearer to me is the ballet Sylvia?” he asked.

Sylviawas based on a 16th-century Italian lyric poem by Torquato Tasso set in a mythic world of demi-gods and rustics. Louis Mérante’s choreography for Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane, didn’t stay long on the ballet stage, possibly due to the...