One year on from The Australian Ballet’s gladiatorial epic Spartacus, and we again find ourselves thrust into the wonders of the ancient world. But this time, in the company’s Australian premiere of Sylvia, brutality and hypermasculinity are replaced with an intricate plot of heroinism and triumph.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Sylvia. Photo © Jeff Busby

While there may be unavoidable comparisons – like mythological themes of war and power – plus, more obviously, the same costume and set designer – the similarities end there. Sylvia imagines its own world that bridges the mortal and mythological, where vengeful goddesses toy with deception and defeat. It’s a briskly paced and enjoyable work that reverts to the hallmarks of a conventional story ballet, albeit in a newly-realised form.

A slightly obscure ballet from 1876, Sylvia has spent much of its life on the repertoire shelf, known only for a handful of standalone movements from Léo Delibes’ score. The work has long been criticised for its convoluted but thin plot, which sees Sylvia, a warrior nymph, fall in love with a mortal shepherd after being struck by Cupid’s arrow.

Robyn Hendricks and Adam Bull. Photo © Jeff Busby

Australian-born choreographer Stanton Welch has reimagined the ballet entirely, introducing two additional heroines – goddess Artemis (Robyn Hendricks) and the mortal Psyche (Benedicte Bemet) – whose own stories of desire and conquest interweave with Sylvia (Ako Kondo) and her shepherd (Kevin Jackson). While each of the women are paired with a male love interest, more compelling are the bonds of sisterhood that gradually emerge as the three worlds collide.

It’s not a simple plot, and the full A4-page synopsis is ominous. But Welch’s storytelling is precise and efficient, marrying well with Delibes’ melodic score and offering clear narrative arcs for the audience to follow.

Kevin Jackson and Ako Kondo. Photo © Jeff Busby 

The treble narrative is also well served by Jérôme Kaplan’s versatile and minimalist grotto-like set. Neutral tones and subtle textures offer a blank canvas for Wendall K Harrington’s colourful and detailed projections, which allow the characters to jump seamlessly from the clouds of Olympus to the rolling hills of Arcadia to the flames of Hades. Many of the projections are beautiful but occasionally obscure the dancing, particularly in the first act.

The lead women on opening night – Kondo, Hendricks and Bemet – showed formidable technical and dramatic form. Their embodiment of character offered depth and substance, creating three very separate but equally powerful identities. Jackson’s strong but boyish rendering of the humble shepherd superbly complemented Kondo’s exquisite line and faultless control, giving us several beautiful pas de deux defined by challenging lifts and counterbalances.

Benedicte Bemet and artists of The Australian Ballet. Photo © Jeff Busby

Senior artist Marcus Morelli was an absolute standout as Psyche’s love interest, Eros. With his gravity-defying allegro and precise turns, Morelli showed a true mastery of control and explosiveness. This, paired with his cheeky character acting, made it difficult for him not to steal every scene.

Welch’s choreography is academically classical and highly energetic, featuring many passages of grande allegro and turns. Strong hieroglyphical shapes and the open arm line are cleverly used as an embodiment of ancient militaristic symbolism, most effectively shown by Artemis’ corps of warrior nymphs adorned with metallic bodices and bows and arrows.

Marcus Morelli. Photo © Jeff Busby

These ensemble moments, paired with Delibes’ rousing brass fanfares, are some of the most exciting sections of the whole ballet. We feel the strength of the women soldiers as a united group and their appetite for power. But an underused corps de ballet en masse means these moments are infrequent. Delibes’ score, though tuneful and littered with wonderful leitmotifs, lacks the emotional gravitas of the big story ballets, never quite sweeping us off our feet.

Welch’s story, too, turns inward. While Spartacus offered allegory and metaphor, Sylvia remains within the confines of its narrative structure. This may not be a fair comparison, but, having seen the potential for ancient stories to be reimagined for a contemporary context, it feels like a missed opportunity, especially given there are three powerful women in the lead.

Contemporary relevance aside, Sylvia is a smartly constructed work that offers strong and likeable characters in a complex game of war and triumph. The company performs the work with aplomb, carried by the three leading ballerinas and their talented counterparts. Though more modern in design than substance, balletomanes will enjoy seeing this underperformed ballet on the main stage.

Sylvia plays Melbourne until September 10, and Sydney, November 8 – 23


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