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Birmingham Royal Ballet


by David Mead

February 25, 2009 -- Birmingham Hippodrome

Seeing a large part of the audience reaching for their programme notes at the first interval to try and figure out what is going on is rarely a good sign.  It is also quite unusual in Birmingham because David Bintley is generally such a good storyteller.

In this, his second attempt at “Sylvia”, Bintley has retained much of the choreography from the original.  But, as if the narrative is not confused and convoluted enough already, he has added a framing story intended to tighten up the work, give the characters more depth, and provide a link between the ‘real’ people on stage and the audience.  Unfortunately, many problems remain.

Bintley’s additions are set in 1950s Italy.  Count Guiccioli and his Contessa (Orion and Diana) are celebrating their wedding anniversary, or at least making the pretence of doing so.  The Count is rather more interested in his children’s governess (Sylvia) whom he tries to seduce.  This endangers the love between her and the Count’s valet (Amynta).  Eros, disguised as a gardener, makes it his business to put the world to rights, and so takes the lovers on a journey to teach them a lesson about love.  Other minor characters include Gilberto (Gog) and Giorgio (Magog).

While the dancing occasionally boosted proceedings, “Sylvia” seems to be a ballet still in search of its heart.  Nao Sakuma as Sylvia did her best to lift things, but much of the evening was strangely flat.  Large parts of the opening two acts were unmemorable.  The story did not help, and neither did some of the characterisations, which at times relied too much on stereotypes.  Even Bintley’s humour sometimes failed.  His dance for the wooden-legged pirate captain was full of invention and quite funny, but the dance for the drunken Gog and Magog was dreadfully over the top and dated.  It may have been a reference to the goons in “Prodigal Son,” although for some of the audience, it owed more to the music hall silly walks of Max Wall’s Professor Wallofski.  Whichever, it was out of place in this context.

The ballet did come alive at times.  Perhaps significantly, these were almost all when the story was somewhat forgotten and Bintley took his lead much more from Délibes’ sometimes stirring, sometimes beautiful score.  Among the best were the two large corps dances for Diana (Elisha Willis) and her followers, done with lots of attack and more than a hint of “Spartacus”, and the main pas de deux for Sylvia and Amynta in Act III, which started slowly but built and built to an impressive series of leaps, lifts and turns, all carried off with great precision by Sakuma and Chi Cao.  Elsewhere, Robert Parker was a suitably lecherous Orion, crashing around the stage with impressive vigour, while Alexander Campbell with his knowing looks and glances at the audience was the perfect Eros, nicely understated but always in control.

Délibes bright and breezy score, with additions from “La Source” was played with zest by The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the direction of Paul Murphy.

“Sylvia” continues on tour to Sunderland, Plymouth, Salford and London.  See for details.

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