Martha Graham once likened dancers to the athletes of God. In Sylvia, make that “gods”. Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite and Eros: the whole Grecian pantheon is here, with a backing corps of huntress nymphs, leaping fauns, and finger-clicking Arcadian peasants. Because in this mythos, everyone is ready to boogey.

Ako Kondo in <i>Sylvia</i> © Kevin Jackson
Ako Kondo in Sylvia
© Kevin Jackson

That pretty much sums up Stanton Welch’s Sylvia, premiered jointly this year by the Houston Ballet (where he is Artistic Director) and the Australian Ballet (where he began his career). It’s an entertaining, light-hearted story ballet. Nothing too profound or ground-breaking, but enormously fun and impressively danced: I haven’t seen the company so clean, sharp, and athletic in a long time.

The first incarnation of Sylvia was an 1878 flop at Paris’ Opera Garnier. It was mainly thanks to Léo Delibes’ captivating score that the ballet survived to be passed down at all. And it was Delibes – the story goes – who appeared to Sir Frederick Ashton in a dream, telling him to “save my ballet”. It’s Ashton’s 1952 version, choreographed for Margot Fonteyn, that is today most synonymous with the ballet’s name.

Welch’s version maintains the Arcadian setting, but that’s about where the Ashton similarities end. To begin with, although there is no significant attempt to push the bounds of classical vocabulary, the choreography is funny. I can’t remember the last time I chuckled that much through a ballet. And the sets (Jérôme Kaplan) remind of the recent crop of Marvel and DC superhero movies: a grotto on which special effects (Wendall K. Harrington) are projected. Explosions, shock waves, shooting stars, and hellfire – beamed onstage for the modern audience’s entertainment.

The dancers take main focus though: a large, zany cast enmeshed in the antiquity equivalent of family and workplace dramas. I’m not sure why Welch chose such a complex plot, but it makes you feel like you're doing the ballet version of binge-watching a high quality TV soap.

Benedicte Bemet © Daniel Boud
Benedicte Bemet
© Daniel Boud

There are, for starters, not one but three couples. The hunting goddess Artemis and her boy-next-door love interest Orion (a mythological giant later turned into a constellation, but such details never got in the way of a good romance). Eros, struggling to deal with his mother Aphrodite’s attempts to kill Psyche, his mortal wife. And Sylvia, one of Artemis’ hunting nymphs, who’s shirking military duty for her hapless shepherd boyfriend. The three plotlines are so involved that the synopsis is a full page of small print, and colour-coded information charts are installed throughout the foyer. Don’t confuse the charts for French flags. You have not stumbled on Bastille Day – rather the blue, white, and red stripes represent each couple’s colour-coded costuming (Kaplan again).

The background characters are fun too. There is a full army of hunting nymphs clad in short metallic tunics, including three commander nymphs wearing what looked like unfortunate showgirl leggings. The nymph costumes cause Arcadia to morph slightly into Caesar’s Palace in Vegas; but the athletic female dancing was a spectacle nonetheless. Then there are four fauns (Daniel Byrne, Mason Lovegrove, Luke Marchant and Drew Hedditch) who have the ballet’s best comic routines and some of the best male allegro dancing. Who knew jumps could look so flash in goat pants.

On the night I attended, Robyn Hendricks was Artemis and Adam Bull was Orion. Highly effective casting – Hendricks and Bull are both tall, elegant dancers with mature artistry and commanding presence. As the ballet’s “tragic couple”, they had wonderful chemistry and gravitas.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in <i>Sylvia</i> © Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Sylvia
© Jeff Busby

Brett Chynoweth was completely charming and a show-stopping standout as Eros, the lovestruck trickster. The role is very swift-footed, full of fast, airy jumps and sharp turns, and from his first solo he had the audience wrapped around his little finger. Jill Ogai was a very lovely and funny Psyche – as talented at comic acting as she is at dancing.

Houston Ballet guest stars Karina González and Connor Walsh danced Sylvia and her shepherd. Walsh’s first solo was a bit lacklustre, but his partnering was very strong and seamless. González was the ballet's highlight. Technically flawless, but also warm, charming, and vulnerable, I can’t fault her luminous performance.

A final note that Sylvia is being publicised as a liberating "feminist" ballet. Don’t believe the hype: it’s not. Physical attractiveness is still a defining priority for the female characters, and their destinies and happiness are controlled by the male gods. In other words, dressing a ballerina in hunting gear isn't quite enough. You’re better off reading Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis’ masterful retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth, which makes Sylvia’s “feminism” look like fairy floss in comparison. But for a fun, light night out in Arcadia, look no further – this ballet is just the ticket.

****1