From an ominous wind sounding through the theater before the dancers even appear to an emotional send-off into the stars, the 95 minutes of Stanton Welch’s Sylvia is many, many, oh so many things. But buoyed by incredible dancers, clever choreography and a striking score, Sylvia is never dull, not for one moment.
Thursday night’s opener at the Wortham Center brought Houston Ballet’s top-level performers together once again and it was like the pandemic never happened. Lifts were effortless, leaps and twirls delivered with abandon and everyone appeared to be in such good shape and happy to be there.
Sylvia is, of course, Artistic Director Welch’s pairing of composer Léo Delibes’ music with the love stories of three sets of Greek characters with a hefty dose of the gods tossed in. At center is the story of huntress Sylvia (Karina González) and the Shepherd (Connor Walsh) she comes to love. Then there is mortal Psyche (Melody Mennite) and the god Eros (Charles-Louis Yoshiyama) and goddess Artemis (Jessica Collado) and demigod Orion (Christopher Coomer.) The Greek gods, being the meddlesome bunch that they are, cause no end of trouble among themselves and any adjacent humans. Meanwhile, fauns cavort and engage in mischief of their own.
If that all seems a bit much, well it can be a lot to take in especially in the first act which comes complete with a bear waddling across the stage midway through the proceedings. If you haven’t read your program you might not know that’s Callisto, a former nymph in Artemis’s army who becomes the revenge target of the goddess’s wrath for her part in Artemis’s twin brother Apollo’s trickery which leads Artemis into firing a lethal arrow into her good friend Orion.
Eros has his own revenge tactics ready to go – he’s mad at Artemis for shooting an arrow at him – but that plan is set aside when he is dispatched by his mother Leto to kill Psyche. Her crime: she has surpassed Zeus’s wife in beauty. Instead, Eros who is disguised as a mortal and wearing a mask, falls in love with Psyche and marries her. She’s not supposed to ever look under the mask but, of course, she does and he angrily splits the scene. Not having much of a learning curve, Psyche later opens a box she’s told she must never look into and poisoned, falls lifelessly to the ground, appropriately enough in the Underworld.
Apparently having nothing else to do, Eros amuses himself by casting a spell on Sylvia causing her to fall in love with the first person she sees which happens to be The Shepherd. The dance by the unlikely duo – she the pursuer and he the befuddled – is one of the highlights of the show and one that has been presented as an excerpt in mixed rep performances.
One of the striking common threads in last night’s performances was the level of trust among the dancers. González and Walsh who have danced together so many times, seamlessly blend into one another. He tosses her into the air, completely releasing her and then catches her as she comes down. At times in their duet you want to hit the replay button to better figure out how they got from there to here. It’s like a magic trick – you saw it right before your eyes but how did that happen?
Mennite, the perfect choice for portraying an irrepressible creature, is thrown about like a rag doll from one of her relatives to Yoshiyama’s Eros and back again. When she dies on stage she falls back suddenly and without pause into a group of her relatives, certain they will catch her.
Collado’s Artemis and Coomer’s Orion clearly and cleanly reinforce their love for each other, without missing a step, a handoff, a gesture. Equally clearly, Collado portrays a range of emotions: steely resolve, anger, despair, compassion and ultimately joy.
Special note should be taken of First Soloist Harper Watters, always a crowd favorite. He fully embodied the jealous, impish, interfering nature of the mercurial god Apollo. He dances The Shepherd role in the Sunday matinee performances.
The orchestra under the direction of Ermanno Florio ably handled the score with its sometimes lyrical, more often driving music. Full marks to the drum section here. Costumes were the same as the 2019 production and showed off the dancers appropriately from the armed-with-bows army of nymphs to the part-human, part-goat fauns complete with the requisite horns and goatish lower body.
Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting was right on point. Arrows were light blue rays of light, striking down opponents on the battlefield. The searing image of Walsh as The Shepherd at the top of the mountain gripping Sylvia’s discarded armor at the end of the first act as he begins his search for his abducted love packs an emotional punch. Stars come out in the final scene as Artemis and Orion ascend to the only place where they can be together again – in the heavens — while the dark blue lights of Orion’s belt shine behind them.
In attendance Thursday night, in the row in front of us was Edith, age 7. Attired in a sparking silver dress accessorized by a bright pink cast encasing her left arm (ah, the dangers of playground equipment and falls from it) she remained caught up in the ballet throughout, entranced by the non-stop spectacle. Her favorite moments: the leaps, the high jumps. Her favorite character: “Artemis” she told us. By a landslide, her mother confirmed. Clearly Edith appreciates a woman of action.
Her mother considered leaving after the Second Act. It was getting late for a seven-year-old after all. But Edith insisted on staying and was rewarded with a happy ending for her favorite character.
So our advice is: listen to Edith. Come to Sylvia, stay for all three acts, enjoy the leaps, grace and artistry. You will be glad you did.
Performances of Sylvia continue through March 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.