Ashton's Ancient Greece-inspired ballet has a kickass female lead
Frederick Ashton’s Greek-myth inspired ballet, 65 years old this year, has all the fairytale elements you could wish for – romance, a pantomime baddie and perky dancing goats among them.
Its fantastical sets are stunning, and Delibes’s music is warmly rendered by the orchestra under Simon Hewett. Its story arc doesn’t look so great these days – we watch Sylvia go from strong, independent Diana acolyte, surrounded by her warrior women, to sweetly compliant, veiled bride, her companions now just fluttering in tutus. But Ashton created the role of Sylvia on Margot Fonteyn as a showcase for a dazzling principal dancer, and on opening night Marianela Nuñez grabbed the opportunity with both hands (Lauren Cuthberston and Natalia Osipova will also dance the role in this run).
In her kickass first incarnation, Nuñez’s Sylvia is indomitable; no wonder Vadim Muntagirov’s leggy and lovelorn shepherd, Aminta, can’t stop mooning over her. Presented with Aminta’s declaration of love, Sylvia shoots him with bow and arrow and sweeps off imperiously. Nuñez works fierce attitude into Ashton’s fiendish footwork – and sizzles splendidly in Act II, when she escapes the clutches of her other would-be suitor, the dastardly hunter Orion. Thiago Soares, in cod-Oriental garb, has a ball playing up the silliness of this part; Kevin Emerton and David Yudes as his cartwheeling slaves are also good value.
All is resolved in Act III, when a now demure Sylvia, tamed by love, marries Aminta. Nuñez sparkles in the couple’s grand pas de deux, mixing steely precision with delicate joyfulness; Muntagirov partners her respectfully and confidently, and those long limbs of his lend his jumps a luxurious glide. The massed ranks of the Royal Ballet look impressive in the finale – especially notable here is Fumi Kaneko, as Terpsichore, who shines amid the whirl of activity. It’s all a grand bit of silliness – but still a sparkly dance delight.