Chicago Dance Review: SYLVIA (The Joffrey Ballet)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 15, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


A kind of Mulan among major works of 19th-century ballet (it celebrates a young nymph’s coming of age), Leo Delibes’ Sylvia is not as famous as his simpler, more domestic Coppelia. But the Palais Garnier’s 1876 retelling of several Greek myths continues to deliver considerable charm. It holds it even in this 1997 reinterpretation for the Paris Opera Ballet by Hamburg Ballet choreographer (and lighting designer) John Neumeier that’s cuter than it is classical. As always, the sexual blossoming of the title lady, fresh as it is fantastic, perfectly graces Delibes’ unashamedly sensuous and rhapsodic score–here beautifully conducted by Scott Speck and performed by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra.

5_Temur Suluashvili and April Daly_Photo by Cheryl Mann

“Three choreographic poems on an enchanted theme,” this Joffrey Ballet premiere contrasts Sylvia’s dawning passion for the shepherd Aminta with the moon goddess Diana’s lonely ardor for sleep-doomed Endymion. Complicating matters is the unsought intervention of the god of Love, who confuses impressionable Sylvia with his incarnations as Thyrsis and Orion. Somehow the mortal lovers, though deceived by Love’s disguises and wounded by Diana’s archers, recapture their amour many years later, only to be separated forever. If Diana must endure her lunar isolation, it seems, so will Aminta. But Sylvia, it seems, moves on to a terrific career as a soubrette turned social lioness.

7_Yoshihisa Arai_Photo by Cheryl Mann

Neumeier curiously begins the action with a slow-motion dumb show, performed before an abstract cubicle that suggests an enchanted forest. In the first poem “The Art of Archery,” Sylvia’s discovery of her femininity opens her to feelings for Aminta: They remain throughout as shy as they are sensuous. April Daly brings a tentative delicacy to her timid duets with Yoshihisa Arai’s protective and languorous Aminta.

1_April Daly and Fabrice Calmels_Photo by Cheryl Mann

In contrast, Victoria Jaiani’s pro-active Diana appears every imperious inch an equal partner to the always imposing Fabrice Calmels. His unexpectedly compliant Endymion seems molded by their movements, his love reborn with every duet. Finally, a suave Temur Suluashvili smoothly manipulates Sylvia’s nascent longings with the contagious experience of an accomplished shape-shifter.

4_Huntresses_Photo by Cheryl Mann

Providing a communal counterweight to the lovers’ entanglement, the corps de ballet represent Amazon-like huntresses, the creatures of the forest, and adorable young shepherds in yellow overalls. This sprightly ensemble engage in quirky to torpid dances. These rural romps oddly demonstrate more rigidity than fluidity. But then, eschewing romantic flourishes, Neumeier prefers a fairly mechanical approach, even in partners’ duos. His technique specializes in flailing arms, rushes for the exits, swooning gestures, head wagging, shoulder shrugs galore, and women employed as dead weights for portable purposes.

10_April Daly and Victoria Jaiani_Photo by Cheryl Mann

“In the Ream of the Senses” takes place at Orion’s tony party, flanked by a huge sculpture of a truncated male torso. Here the men, spiffy in tuxedos that suggest the gigolos of Paris’ Jockey Club in the 1800s, indulge in sometimes demented Dionysian delights. Delibes’ celebrated “cortege de Bacchus” ends in Sylvia’s total transformation into a five-star sybarite.

11_Artur Babajanyan and Mahallia Ward (Center) Photo by Cheryl Mann

Finally, after another a cappella dumb show, “Winter Sun” restores us to a now barren and endangered forest: Sylvia and Aminta enjoy a rather robotic reunion, a possible homage that recalls the automaton doll heroine in Coppelia.

12_April Daly (laying down) and Victoria Jaiani_Photo by Cheryl Mann

Yannis Kokkos’ modernistic design and contemporary costumes industriously update a Victorian ballet. Hearts and flowers are replaced with bright color fields, a stylized moon, and a backdrop built from hard edges. Neumeier wants no distractions from the dance–and the results mostly justify the restraint. No repository for unearned nostalgia, his Sylvia is crisp as autumn, a playful invention where love’s intensity and astonishment are measured by an awkward awakening and an eventual demise.

2_Temur Suluashvili (Eros aka Cupid)_Elivelton Tomazi, Raul Casasola, Stephen Goncalvez and Hansol Jeong. Photos by Cheryl Mann

photos by Cheryl Mann

8_Victoria Jaiani_Photo by Cheryl Mann

The Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
50 E. Congress Parkway
ends on October 25, 2015
for tickets, call 312.386.8905 or visit Ticketmaster
for more info, visit Joffrey

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit

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