Close up with Darcey Bussell and Ashton’s Sylvia at the Royal Opera House Cinema Festival

Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle in <I>Sylvia</I> on <a href="https://www.amazon.co.uk/Delibes-Sylvia-NTSC-Darcey-Bussell/dp/B000WMHTAU/">Opus Arte video from Amazon</a>.<br />© Opus Arte. (Click image for larger version)
Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle in Sylvia on Opus Arte video from Amazon.
© Opus Arte. (Click image for larger version)

Royal Ballet Sylvia – 2005 cinema realease
Royal Opera House Cinema Festival
London, Linbury Studio Theatre
7 December 2018

The Royal Opera House is celebrating 10 years of live relays of ballet and opera performances by using the redeveloped Linbury Studio Theatre as a cinema. Every Friday and Saturday until 6 January 2019, past recordings of 11 operas and 9 ballets (two of them Swan Lakes) will be shown on an enormous screen in the Linbury (don’t sit too close!)

Tickets cost between £10 and £15 and are selling fast. Children between the ages of 5-15 go free. Added attractions include introductions by artists and staff members, and intervals in which drinks and snacks can be bought in the downstairs foyer. The experience is more theatrical than cinematic, and makes good use of the Linbury before the start of its 2019 programme of events.

The Royal Ballet’s 2004 production of Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, filmed by Ross MacGibbon in December 2005, was introduced by Darcey Bussell. Earlier in the evening, she had been signing copies of her new book Darcey Bussell Evolved in the ROH shop. Prompted by Amanda Skoog, senior producer for the Linbury, Bussell reminisced about learning the leading role from ‘Fig’ Newton (as Christopher Newton has long been nicknamed). Newton recreated Sylvia 16 years after Ashton’s death, using the same Ironside designs, and drawing on old films, archives and memories.

Darcey Bussell, during Ballet Studio Live, with Marianela Nuñez and Irek Mukhamedov.© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Rachel Cherry. (Click image for larger version)
Darcey Bussell, during Ballet Studio Live, with Marianela Nuñez and Irek Mukhamedov.
© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Rachel Cherry. (Click image for larger version)

Bussell, who had just returned to dancing in 2004 after the birth of her second daughter, had worked hard to regain her stamina for the demanding role. ‘You have to show over three acts how she develops from a heartless warrior leader to a woman in love’, she said. Although the role was made on Margot Fonteyn, Bussell wondered whether the bounding leaps had been influenced by Nadia Nerina, a tireless jumper who was another memorable Sylvia.

Bussell had first danced the role with Jonathan Cope as Aminta, Sylvia’s hapless lover. In the film, Aminta is Roberto Bolle, guest artist from La Scala Milan. Bussell called him her ‘Italian stallion’, recalling how he strived to master the style of Ashton’s choreography. Bolle, still dancing magnificently, is now coming to the end of his career. Bussell, who retired from ballet in 2007 (and has another career as a Strictly Come Dancing judge) coaches Royal Ballet dancers, giving back the advice she had received. Surely, though, she was embellishing memories of ‘working with Ashton’, since she had only just joined the Royal Ballet at 19 when he died.

The Royal Ballet in Sylvia (in 2017).© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
The Royal Ballet in Sylvia (in 2017).
© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

Amanda Skoog’s claim that Sylvia is unique to the Royal Ballet was misleading, since American Ballet Theatre has performed the same production, in the same designs, since 2005, and Lauren Cuthbertson stepped into the Mariinsky production at short notice just last month. The introductory chat, informal rather than scholarly, was otherwise well done, with Bussell a confident, articulate and very charming speaker.

Sylvia must have presented unusual problems for Ross MacGibbon, in spite of his experience as a dance film director. The production is full of old-fashioned theatrical surprises unsuited for modern cameras, not least the immobile statue of Eros that turns out to be Martin Harvey (ah, those thighs). His transformations are all too obvious, as are the fake arrows that strike Aminta and Sylvia.  The tableau in the heavens near the end, showing the goddess Diana mooning over sleeping Endymion, makes even less sense than it does in the theatre.

Martin Harvey in Sylvia.© Bill Cooper, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
Martin Harvey in Sylvia.
© Bill Cooper, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

That said, the performances are spectacularly good. How is it that after all their exertions, the leading couple never appear to be out of breath? How could Harvey’s Eros stand so still, not breathing, for so long? As with all recordings of long-gone performances, it’s poignant to watch retired dancers in their prime, and to recognise future stars in minor parts – Sarah Lamb and Lauren Cuthbertson, for example, as Sylvia’s attendants. Thiago Soares as the villain, Orion, was still a young First Soloist when he was entrusted with the role. A Brazilian-made documentary about his 20-year career as a dancer, fittingly entitled Primeiro Ballerino (Principal Dancer) will be screened in the Linbury on 21 January 2019.

About the author

Jann Parry

A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.

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