Dance

Houston Ballet's Sylvia Returns to the Wortham in All its Mythic Glory

Houston Ballet Principal Karina González as Sylvia in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia.
Houston Ballet Principal Karina González as Sylvia in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2019), Courtesy of Houston Ballet
"It just felt like something that was a very triumphant return for us, coming back after COVID," said Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch in explaining why he chose to stage Sylvia at the Wortham Center this month.

Last seen in February 2019 when it premiered with Welch's choreography, Sylvia has three main female characters all danced by principals in the night performances: Sylvia (Karina González), Psyche (Melody Mennite) and Artemis (Jessica Collado). Sylvia is the huntress, Psyche the mortal and Artemis, the goddess.

The lead dancers also include Connor Walsh as The Shepherd, Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as Eros and Christopher Coomer as Orion, all of whom danced in the production three years ago, Welch said.

"That's part of the joy in returning to a ballet you've made on dancers, it's in their bodies; it's part of them. How the movement is, how it was. It doesn't come back magically but it certainly comes back faster and better than when you're first learning something," Welch said.

The artistic director set the music to a classic 95-minute score by Léo Delibes’ — something attempted by several other choreographers over the years and less successfully than Welch as noted by Houston Press reviewer Natalie de la Garza in 2019. Welch switched his characters from Roman to Greek and added the Eros and Psyche and Artemis and Orion pairings.

"I've used every bit of the score and it's such a wonderful piece of music. You really feel so complete by the end of it," Welch said.

Asked why he thought Sylvia has been so well received by Houston audiences, Welch said: "It's three very relatable characters in these women. I think that you have Artemis who is someone who is career-oriented who puts love on the backburner who ends up not having love; she misses out. That's a story that many of us share.

"The story of Psyche and Eros, she promises something and she breaks her promise and tells a lie and she begs for forgiveness — that's something we've all done. And Sylvia and The Shepherd, someone who chooses happiness in love over outside things. I think there's a real connectability that one of those three ladies, everyone in the audience is," he said.

"They're also not victims. They'll all strong-willed people that determine their lives and find love. They all end up in love. Even though Artemis and Orion are eternal love — it's in heaven — it still has an optimism to it; it's reflective of what we need in story telling."

Welch said he's listened to Sylvia for years and struggled in how to tell a story that went with the music. While listening to the last section one day, he had an epiphany and knew how to resolve the Artemis story. "I built the rest of the story backwards from that."

What is surprising, given the emotional weight that last scene carries, is that often other productions cut that last section of music, he said. It's after the Sylvia and The Shepherd story has resolved "so a lot of versions finish there," he said. But he felt the Artemis-Orion story deserved an ending and all of Delibes’ score should be heard. "For me it was very much the catalyst for what forced me to do Sylvia."

Why should audiences come to see Sylvia?

"If you haven't seen story ballet for a while I think it will change your mind about how story and dance can move. It's not elitist, It's not hard to understand, Welch said. "If you have seen it before, dancers are like wine. The longer they get to perform something the better they are. They're only getting better and better every time.

"Sylvia is really a return to us in our full capacity," Welch said. "We made it here. We presented it here. It will remind everyone of what we can do."

Performances of Sylvia are scheduled for March 10-20 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Masks worn over the mouth and nose are required. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25-$208.
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