- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO - It was a bold move for the San Francisco Ballet to commission a full-length ballet from Mark Morris, the brilliant, unpredictable modern dance choreographer.

Bold but not foolhardy. Mr. Morris is as intriguing and original a dance maker as anyone working today.

The result was “Sylvia,” which confirmed the choreographer’s zest for the unpredictable at its recent world premiere in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.

So what did Mr. Morris do? Confound everyone by making what in many ways was a traditional ballet that used an 1876 score by Leo Delibes for “Sylvia” and the original plot. He offers the story sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but mostly with innocent delight.

Mr. Morris embraces all the sweet absurdities of the plot with affection. He brings warmth to the improbable tale of Sylvia, featuring Aminta, the young man who loves her; the villainous Orion, who abducts her; and the gods Eros and Diana. Shining through all the amusing shenanigans is a radiance that comes from a simple truth: the healing power of true love.

The choreographer’s program notes give an idea of the straightforward way he approaches the story. In the last act:

“A pirate arrives with a shipload of slave women.

“Aminta is irresistibly drawn to one of them.

“She is Sylvia in disguise. They are in love.

“Orion interrupts the festival … Diana herself appears and slays Orion.”

To tell his tale, Mr. Morris employs more traditional ballet technique than in other works he has staged for the San Francisco company.

Used to the barefoot dancers of his own troupe, he plunges these ballet dancers into a traditional pas de deux for the climax, filled with fast leaps, entrechats, fouettes and spiraling turns.

His steps may not have the complexity of ballet’s master choreographers, but he uses the vocabulary in a way that gives it casual grace and a sense of freedom.

The directness of approach is what makes this a period piece to delight a modern audience.

In the second act, Orion, having carried Sylvia off to a cave, attempts to seduce her with huge clusters of grapes that cover a large table. She faces the audience and touches her finger to her brow. Lightbulb! An idea! An amusing modern gesture instead of old-fashioned mime.

Sylvia jumps on the table, piercing the grapes with her pointe shoes and pouring the fresh homemade wine down Orion’s gullet. She eggs on his galumphing cohorts to follow suit; they jump on the table and stamp away — producing enough wine to drink him into a stupor.

Mr. Morris has enhanced his ballet by his choice of collaborators. Aside from the busy flower patterns of the first act, scenic designer Allen Moyer produced a stylish cave scene and a splendid classical setting complete with Greek statues for the final act. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, in a wonderful palette of colors, were stylish and imaginative.

The San Francisco dancers, some of the finest in the country, were fetching as nymphs, villagers, slaves and bacchanalians. Sylvia was danced by the company’s leading ballerina, Yuan Yuan Tan, at the opening, with a young dancer from the corps, Elizabeth Miner, triumphing in the second cast with her fine technique and dramatic flair.

Gonzalo Garcia was an ardent, headstrong Aminta at the opening, with Pascal Molat more tender in the role in a later performance. Other strong performances were danced by Yuri Possokhov, Muriel Maffre, and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba.

“Sylvia” may not be a great Morris work, but it is a charming one. Tone is everything in this work, which sweeps away cobwebs and gives a humane and affectionate look at an earlier time.

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