I haven’t been posting my dance reviews, but I am (briefly) coming out of the dance blogging netherworld to link to this review of Mark Morris’ “Sylvia,” and to whisper a secret: Critics have second thoughts. Even two days after the performance.
Perhaps you’re bound to reconsider just a bit when you write that “San Francisco ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson is sure to have a national hit on his hands when the company takes ‘Sylvia’ to New York this summer.” In fact, I stand by that statement–I predict that “Sylvia” will do swimmingly in Manhattan, world capital of Morris worshippers, though it will be fascinating to see how it fares back-to-back with the Royal Ballet’s performances of Ashton’s version.
I also stand by my points of praise for Morris’ staging and choreography; the rightness of the symbolism and the steadiness with which he layers meaning upon his movement motifs is deft. His physical characterizations–the skittering water creatures, the prancing huntresses–are nothing short of brilliant. And yet I walked out of the theater filled with more admiration than excitement. I had entered with expectations (very rarely do I not arrive with at least slight expectations, though I strive mightily against this) that the ballet would leave me vaguely unstirred, as it had last year. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself deeply impressed. I was happy to chalk up any hazy dissatisfaction to the mildness of the story’s morals.
But hindsight is the critic’s occupational hazard. If I had it to do again, I would add a few caveats. This is not a production of classical spectacle. The ensembles are kept deliberately small–no cadres of pointe-shoe clad otherwordly creatures working with mesmerizing sychronicity. But more to the point, there is little “dancey” dance. Morris is working mostly in postures and deliberately deployed symbols here. His ballet vocabulary is not vast and certainly not inventive. His style is weighted, unadorned, and straightforward. None of this much bothers me. But, thinking about the ballet today, I do feel a lack. Never in “Sylvia” do we feel a joyous flow of movement, a number that sweeps us up into kinesthetic pleasures. I’m thinking of “The Hard Nut,” of those daffy, exuberant snowflakes whirled across the stage by the Tchaikovsky score, of that stage full of mopey flowers tossing themselves about to the waltz. I’m thinking too of “L’Allegro” and those thrilling, hand-in-hand chains of group motion. Those are the moments that sweep you into an emotional pitch whose goodwill radiates upon the entire evening. “Sylvia” has no such moments. If its movements are smartly arranged, you could also call them stilted.
A critic is nothing without her opinions, and even writing these caveats feels dangerous. But let’s be honest: I liked “Sylvia” upon second viewing quite a lot, but I see how you might not. In fact, if you would like to judge for yourself (and I believe that you should), I am joining a group of fellow congregation members from Grace Cathedral for the May 2 performance. I believe tickets are still available, though limited. Click here for information.
UPDATE: Stephanie von Buchau and Paul Parish blame the dancers’ performances for their “Sylvia” let-downs. I could see nothing materially different in Miner’s performance or any of the other dancers’ this year, and think Morris’ production simply couldn’t live up to last year’s hype. But Parish nearly persuades me, particularly with his theory that the corps “shot their wads” (colorful phrase) on Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite.”