Thursday, 2 December 2010

Who is Sylvia?

Marianela Nuñez, that's who. Delicate, smiling, cool as a kitten and twice as lively Marianela Nuñez, dancing her socks off at Covent Garden last night.

"Sylvia" is, to be frank, some of the silliest stuff that ever I saw. It's also absolutely gorgeous. Like another fairly preposterous ballet, "Le Corsaire", it's set in Greece, or rather in an extra-romantic alternative-history version thereof...

Act One: The curtain rises on a wooded glade and a shrine to the god Eros. Dryads and fauns are cavorting in the moonlight. They are interrupted by the arrival of Our Hero, Aminta - Aminta-nice-but-dim, to give him what ought by rights to be his full name. He is smitten with the beautiful maiden huntress and devotee of Artemis, Sylvia - Our Heroine. As portrayed by Rupert Pennefather, Aminta is tall, handsome, badly-dressed and a bit daft, but boy, does he jump beautifully.

He prays to Eros for help, then hides as Sylvia and her fellow maiden huntresses arrive, carrying a comedy dead animal and wearing delicious curlicue-shaped helmets. They dance together, doing increasingly showy things, led by the beautiful Sylvia doing even showier things. As Nuñez is beautiful, and handles all the showy stuff beautifully, one can see where Aminta gets his problem. But Sylvia is scornful of love, and mocks the statue of Eros defiantly.

Unknown to her, Sylvia has another man problem, for she and her companions are also being observed by the villainous hunter Orion, who is lurking on a nearby bridge and clutching his spear in lust (I kid you not. Very big spear, too). The huntress maidens discover Aminta, and Sylvia sneers at him, but when she makes to shoot at the statue of Eros (presumably to show how completely she despises Love), Aminta gets in the way and is wounded.

Eros promptly comes alive (poor Kenta Kura has by now stood stock still for well over twenty minutes, wearing nothing but the very sketchiest of lioncloths and a lot of stone-coloured body paint). Nocking an arrow to his stone bow he shoots Sylvia in the heart. She at once begins to feel emotions hitherto undreamt-of. She leaves with her friends, but she's soon back, literally shaking with confusion and grief (fantastic pointe-work here), to hover over the rapidly-failing Aminta. The arrow of Eros is working its magic, and Sylvia, apparently too late, notices Aminta's noble face, muscular limbs and fine body.

Meanwhile another set of muscular limbs creep behind her, for Orion The Evil Hunter is stealing across the stage. Orion has a beard, seemingly ballet short-hand for being dastardly, and even worse dress sense than Aminta - think satin trousers and a weird sleeveless shirt-waister with satin revers panels in the skirt, topped off with dashing but rather camp lilac suede boots. Good old Gary Avis manages somehow to convey virile villainy even in the teeth of this outfit.

He snatches Sylvia! She fights! She kicks and leaps, and they do some spectacular tricky lifts as she tries to get away. But it's all too much for her emotion-buffeted heart and she faints dead away, beautifully, at the climax of a big overhead lift, and is carried off by her wicked abductor.

Some harvesting peasants find the hapless Aminta at death's door, and Eros reappears, in a deeply dodgy disguise, to revive him and heal his wound. Inspired by Love, Aminta sets off - I thought, to rescue Sylvia...

Act Two: ...but - it turns out she can rescue herself, or very nearly so, without his help.

Act Two is set in Orion's rocky hideout, where he is getting drunk and ordering his slaves to heap gifts of jewellery and fancy clothes on Sylvia. Sylvia scorns everything and tells Orion she isn't interested, as bluntly as she can given that it has to be done in mime. Her refusal has no effect, and nor do tears - both seem only to increase Orion's interest. She decides to play along in the hope of distracting him long enough to get away.

She accepts some of the fancy clothes and jewels, dances provocatively, and refills Orion's wine goblet repeatedly. Two of his slaves dance a rather embarrassing "We are exotic oriental savages" dance, and then Orion and Sylvia do a kind-of pas de deux of increasing athleticism and eroticism. Things are getting pretty steamy, but at last all the drink tips Orion over the edge between amorous and incapable, and he passes out.

Sylvia looks for a way out, but cannot find one; however, she steals the arrow of Eros, now her most precious talisman, from Orion's drunken hand, and prays to Eros to help her. Light breaks over the cavern as the walls fall away, and Eros appears, carrying a torch and ushering in a beautiful little caravel, aboard which he and Sylvia set sail to find Aminta.

Act Three: Aminta and an assortment of peasants, dryads, demi-gods and gods are awaiting Eros' return, dancing a series of rather lovely divertissements to pass the time. The caravel arrives and Sylvia and her companions disembark with Eros. She pledges her love to Aminta, and Eros joins their hands in token of their betrothal. They do a gorgeous, fiendishly tricky Grand Pas-de-deux, packed with exquisite footwork and athletic lifts and jumps.

Everything seems to be resolving towards a happy ending, when suddenly Orion barges in to demand that Sylvia return with him. It transpires that he thinks she is His Woman, and he refuses to accept her gentle explanation that she was just leading him on in order to be able to get back to her True Love, Aminta.

Orion and Aminta fight (cue more spectacular leaps and lifts, and balletic throwing of one another about the stage). Sylvia hides in a nearby temple and Orion, having knocked Aminta down, tries to smash open the door. With a thunderclap, the goddess Artemis emerges, bow and arrows in hand, beautiful, majestic and fizzing with rage.

It's at this point we realise Orion is just not very bright. Confronted by an angry, armed goddess, he doesn't bow down, pay homage, or even make nice; he gives her attitude. Artemis shoots him.

Exit Orion, stage left, with an arrow in him - he has to die offstage or get trodden-on for the remaining ten minutes of the ballet.

Artemis, it turns out, is spitting-tacks furious with Sylvia, who wants to marry and therefore break her vows of chastity. She expressly forbids it, despite pleas from the young couple. But Eros sneakily reminds her of her own lost beloved, the shepherd Endymion, who fell into an eternal sleep and never consumated their love. Artemis, overcome by the memory (& possibly just a bit embarrassed at this airing of her little secret), relents and gives her blessing to the marriage of Sylvia and Aminta. Cue general rejoicing as the young huntress Gets Her Man.

It's lovely and daft, and technically very tricky stuff, and made for a perfect birthday treat (well, one day early). A final bonne bouche was to come out of the theatre to find delicate snowflakes falling over Covent Garden piazza, and all the christmas lights glittering. I walked on air all the way back to the tube.

Today it has snowed on and off all day. I was meant to be meeting a friend and going to see the new "Harry Potter" film tonight, but I'm wondering if we may have to postpone. In which case perhaps I'll treat myself on the way home to a birthday Pizza Express trip. Or a birthday Starbucks. Or something. It seems odd to remember that last year I spent my birthday on a beach, swimming in the sea and eating ice-cream, and here I am in the office looking out at Kew Green under a thick, white blanket of snow.

But at least I have the crazy loveliness of "Sylvia" to remember.

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