Since her story invokes the displeasure of more than one God, perhaps it is unsurprising that Sylvia has been jinxed for most of her very long life.  

Sub-titled La Nymphe de Diane, the ballet was premiered at the Paris Opera on 14 June 1876 with choreography by Louis Mérante, who danced as Aminta with Rita Sangalli in the title role. Swan Lake was to make its debut some nine months later, but Delibes’ rich and (for that time) futuristic score for Sylvia  led Tchaikovsky to declare that Swan Lake was ‘poor stuff in comparison’. However, despite this musical advantage, the Mérante version was short-lived.  

Sylvia also cast a shadow across Diaghilev’s career. The ballet was directly responsible for his downfall at the Imperial Theatre; the event which prompted his decision to leave Russia and led circuitously to the Ballets Russes, and the establishment of the ballet culture of Britain and America. When Prince Volkonsky was appointed as the Director of the Imperial Theatre he engaged Diaghilev, in 1899, as his ‘official in charge of extraordinary missions’ with a particular brief to reform and modernise. Diaghilev had written an article entitled ‘Leo Delibes’ Ballets’ which was severely critical of the Imperial Theatre management for the way in which Coppélia, Sylvia and La Source had been produced. In relation to Sylvia, he wrote:

‘…the whole management clubbed together a year ago to spoil it and make it a hopeless mess….anybody that knows Delibes realises the position which is his due in the world of music, choreography and the plastic arts’.

His high regard for Delibes led Diaghilev to decide that reforms at the Imperial Theatre should begin by righting this wrong through a new production of Sylvia, but his plans threw the whole Imperial bureaucracy into chaos. The forces for conservatism, described by the uncompromising Diaghilev as ‘grand dukes, femmes fatales and ageing ministers’ submitted no fewer than fourteen requests to the Tsar to have him removed. When these had no effect, his many enemies collectively refused to have anything to do with the new production. Faced with the prospect of this mass boycott, the well-intentioned, but ultimately spineless, Volkonsky cancelled the arrangements for the revival. Diaghilev insisted it should go ahead and was therefore relieved of his duties.

Soon after, Volkonsky was himself to fall foul of Sylvia’s wrath when he was forced to resign after a further dispute. Any hope that Diaghilev may have had for reinstatement were dashed when the key post of Director fell into the hands of his avowed enemy, Vladimir Teliakovsky.

Diaghilev gave up the theatre for a year after this experience, which he was to describe in these terms:  

‘For two whole months St Petersburg could talk of nothing else.  The result was that after my dismissal the director of the Imperial Theatres was boycotted… to the consternation of the whole Russian bureaucracy a week after my fall the Emperor appointed me to a post in his Exchequer…but I left Russia shortly afterwards…’  

The jinx was not yet over. Lev Ivanov undertook to choreograph the postponed production of Sylvia, collaborating with Pavel Gerdt, but he died four days’ before its first performance, on 15 December 1901. This interpretation of Sylvia fared only marginally better than the original. It is perhaps only significant for its relevance in confirming the newfound ascendancy of Olga Preobrajenska (on whom the role of Sylvia was created) in her intense rivalry with the Mariinsky’s prima ballerina assoluta, Mathilde Kschessinska.

Other choreographers have restored Sylvia with little lasting success: Wilhelm at the Liverpool Empire in 1911; Léo Staats for the Paris Opera in 1919; Serge Lifar, also for the Paris Opera, in 1941, revived by Lycette Darsonval (Lifar’s Sylvia) in 1979; and Balanchine’s Act III pas de deux for Maria Tallchief and Nicholas Magallanes, in 1950. David Bintley revisited the work for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1993, followed by John Neumeier’s Three choreographic poems on a mythical theme for the Paris Opera in 1997.

The lack of longevity for any version of Sylvia led the balletomane writer, George Borodin, to declare in 1946 that, all too often, broadcasts on the BBC ‘…are made up of ballet music long since dead, like the 19th century romantic music of Delibes in Sylvia’.

Shortly after this was written, Delibes appeared to Frederick Ashton in a dream and, allegedly, with a kiss, implored the choreographer to save his ballet. Ashton honoured the subconscious commitment by deciding that Delibes’ gorgeous melodies and diverse themes should no longer remain dead to British ballet. Sylvia became his second full-evening work when it premiered at the Royal Opera House on 3 September 1952. Recognising that the flimsy libretto of earlier versions might have contributed to their lack of staying power he made several revisions to the story whilst remaining essentially faithful to the original narrative of Torquato Tasso’s pastoral, Aminta.

Ashton’s Sylvia slotted neatly into the front end of a particularly rich decade of his career where the focus was on reconstructing new versions of classic ballets from earlier scores and scenarios: starting with Daphnis and Chloe (1951) and on through Romeo and Juliet (1955), the libretto of Ondine (1958), La Fille mal gardée (1960) and Les Deux Pigeons (1961). In these ballets, Ashton rose to the challenge of providing spectacle and developing profound characterisation, humour and pathos, whilst also accommodating the less inspired passages in lengthy scores. In 1955, Arnold Haskell wrote: ‘ … he accepts the challenge in Sylvia of coping with period music without descending to pastiche; and never once does the movement he provides strike us as modern or as ‘old world’.’

Ashton’s own simple description of the narrative was ‘boy loves girl, girl captured by bad man, girl restored to boy by god’. This strapline identifies four characters but it is a ballet entirely carried by the ballerina who plays the “girl” and Ashton’s Sylvia came to be (rather unfairly) identified with just one ballerina, famously described by Clive Barnes in this superlative:  

‘The part has everything for Fonteyn. It exploits her imperiousness, her tenderness, her pathos, her womanliness, her bravura. It gives us Fonteyn triumphant, Fonteyn bewildered, Fonteyn exotic, Fonteyn pathetic, Fonteyn in excelsis. The range of her dancing is unequalled, the heart-splitting significance she can give to a simple movement unsurpassed. The whole ballet is like a garland presented to the ballerina by her choreographer.’  

Those who saw Fonteyn as Sylvia speak of the way in which she played with the music, particularly in the choreography for the Pizzicati divertissement. Certainly, today’s dancers in the title role have been routinely compared, by those of sufficiently long-lasting memory, to the compact and fleet footwork of Fonteyn.   

There have been many references to the difficulties faced by taller ballerinas, such as Darcey Bussell and Zenaida Yanowsky, in the 2004  revival of Ashton’s Sylvia. These have emphasised the context of being able to deal with a role that had been specifically made to capitalise on the uniquely compact skills of Fonteyn. However, it is interesting to recall that the longer-limbed Beryl Grey (the third-cast Sylvia in the 1952 performances) was also very well regarded in the role. This may have been partly due to Fonteyn being taken seriously ill a few weeks into the first series of performances. Beryl Grey was to become particularly associated with Sylvia, taking excerpts of the role on tour to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico in 1957 and performing the pizzicato variation for the last of her four public galas in Peking in February 1964. Her biographer, David Gillard wrote: ‘Ashton changed the choreography slightly for her so that it was more suited to a taller dancer, but it was by no means a thorough reworking of a piece that had been originally tailored for the more compact needs of Fonteyn. But Grey’s third-cast appearance was well received by the majority of the critics’. The Times wrote of Grey’s performance: ‘Her physical stature makes her an impressive heroine, her technique an efficient and athletic one, her personality a gracious, musical, attractive figure.’ These sentiments were echoed in The Spectator, which described her as ‘an entirely forceful Sylvia’.

Notwithstanding its achievement in restoring Delibes’ ebullient music to life, the contemporary praise for his choreography, and the memorable performances of Fonteyn and Grey, even the Ashton Sylvia was not immune from the ballet’s jinx and it did not remain in the repertory. Compressed into a one-Act version, in 1967 it survived, for around 80 performances over those fifteen years but, eventually, it went the way of other balletic interpretations and was lost: or, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it was temporarily misplaced.

Christopher Newton, Peter Farmer and their many colleagues painstakingly recreated Ashton’s Sylvia, for the 2004 revival, in a process that is probably not dissimilar to the recreation of a great Stately Home destroyed by fire. Every minute detail was lovingly restored. But, was it a ballet worth saving?   

Recalling the contemporary descriptions of Fonteyn and Grey in the title role and thinking of their legacy, over fifty years on, I was struck by how well these descriptions could apply in equal measure to the stunning opening revival performance as Sylvia by Zenaida Yanowsky: impressive as the statuesque huntress, blazing onto the stage with fiery grand jetés to the stirring fanfare of Les Chasserresses, imperious in her initial disdain for the lovelorn Aminta but ultimately poignant in her distress over his body. In a contemporary interview, Yanowsky talked about the difficulties of the choreography, particularly in Act III, but she conquered the complex requirements with complete command and the most sensitive musicality, covering every element of the role – bravado, pathos, humour and so much more – with the confident certainty of a ballerina in total command of her diverse skills. Delibes’ score presents some wonderful gifts to the choreographer and Ashton used the Danses des Ethiopiens in the second Act and the pas des esclaves in Act III to create memorably witty movement. The flat, two dimensional poses of the goats parody Nijinsky’s Faun whilst the grandeur of the pas de deux, complete with variations and divertissements, evokes Petipa with ease. One of the most thrilling and innovative aspects of this glorious score is the early orchestral use of the saxophone to very great effect.  

This brilliant reconstruction of a masterpiece was the greatest tribute to Ashton that the Royal Ballet could have paid at the centenary of its Founder Choreographer, back in 2004. It was an anniversary offering that lovingly cherished and restored the essence of the original choreography and the brilliant mythological designs of the Ironside brothers were so excellently recreated by Peter Farmer who passed away on New Year’s Day, 2017.   

Christopher Newton deserved high honour for giving this treasure back to the nation and for ensuring that Delibes’ ballet was saved, thus honouring the pact that was made following Ashton’s dream of the dead composer. Newton received due recognition, winning the National Dance Award for Best Classical Choreography, in 2005. Thirteen years’ after its restoration - and at the grand old age of 140 - Sylvia might, at last, be free of her jinx.