Sylvia Momoko Hirata as Sylvia and Joseph Caley as Amynta Photo Bill Cooper

David Bintley’s Sylvia
Momoko Hirata as Sylvia and Joseph Caley as Amynta
Photo Bill Cooper

Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham
June 24, 2015

David Mead

Like most choreographers’ versions of the story of Sylvia, Bintley takes his cue from Aminta, the sixteenth century play by Torquanto Tasso. Unlike most, though, Bintley taps into the way Tasso infuses the story of the lovers with moments of pure in-your-face comedy, even outright farce. Shakespeare frequently did much the same.

This second version of Sylvia by Bintley seemed a little flat when first danced in 2009, but it has matured beautifully into an enjoyable family ballet with something for everyone.

Bintley presents a story within a story. It’s a neat twist that gives the characters more depth and makes them seem rooted in the real world, albeit most of the action takes place in ancient times. He sets off in what looks like 1950s Italy where Count Guiccioli and his Contessa (Orion and Diana) are making the pretence of celebrating their wedding anniversary. In fact, he is rather more interested in his children’s governess (Sylvia), which threatens the love between her and the Count’s valet (Amynta). In steps Eros to take everyone on a time travelling journey, teach them all a lesson, and put the world to rights.

Along the way, Amynta gets struck blind for watching Diana bathe, Sylvia gets captured by and then escapes from the lecherous Orion, before getting captured by and escaping from some pirates, who naturally also have a few other veiled beauties up for sale, as pirates do. Of course, it works out fine in the end and love conquers all. Even the Guicciolis make up. It sounds like quite a silly story, and ultimately it is; and Bintley is spot on in not taking it too seriously.

Sylvia Céline Gittens as Diana and Mathias Dingman as Eros Photo Bill Cooper

Céline Gittens as Diana
and Mathias Dingman as Eros
Photo Bill Cooper

Although the tale is told clearly, Sylvia is a ballet very much about dancing. And with its all-female corps, it’s also very much a ballet for the women. It is a perfect vehicle for Momoko Hirata, who shone as Sylvia. Every turn was a fast and clear as can be, and every step pinprick clear, especially so during the pizzicato in the big Act III pas de deux after Amynta has got his sight back.

For much of the ballet, Joseph Caley has rather less to do as the blinded Amynta, but he made up for it in that pas de deux with an impressive series of leaps, lifts and turns for, all carried off with great precision.

Céline Gittens looked divine at the opening party, and later made a striking Amazonian Diana, even if she did look a little uncertain at times atop the horse. Her entry with her group of sylphs is dramatic and stirring, as indeed are most of the ensemble dances. Delibes’ bright music (which includes excerpts from his La Source) is full of well-known hummable tunes, which helps things along enormously.

Orion is a tricky role. Tyrone Singleton, all flowing locks and dressed in an animal skin initially brought back memories of early Tarzans, but I don’t recall Tarzan every getting drunk, and Orion does get to do a lot of stumbling around in a drunken stupor having been tricked by Sylvia into drinking some wine. Singleton made the most of it, crashing about with impressive vigour. But while strong and brutish, there was just a suggestion that he also cared. As his alter ego, the Count, he was perfect; a man with eyes for every lady but his own.

Some of the biggest cheers of the evening were saved for the pirates and their wonderful ship, all straight out of a young children’s book. The whole scene is rather more Captain Pugwash than Treasure Island, especially when the crew manage to sail off without their leader. Bintley’s choreography for the wooden-legged Pirate Captain (Eros in disguise) is full of invention, including turns on that false peg.

Momoko Hirata as Sylvia and Tyrone Singleton as Orion Photo Bill Cooper

Momoko Hirata as Sylvia and Tyrone Singleton as Orion
Photo Bill Cooper

It depends a little on your sense of humour, but there is more to laugh at in the drunken Gog and Magog who live in Orion’s cave. The obvious connection in their dance is to the goons in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, although those of a certain age might just find a hint of the outrageously silly walks of Max Wall’s Professor Wallofski or even Wilson , Keppel and Betty’s Sand Dance; or if you are a little younger, that in Morecambe and Wise’s unforgettable Cleopatra with Glenda Jackson.

All the time, there’s the guiding hand of Eros, a dapper gentleman gardener who tends to Sylvia and Amynta with the same care that he shows towards his flowers that adorn the anniversary party at the ballet’s opening. Mathias Dingman with his knowing looks and glances was perfect Eros, nicely understated but always in control.

Sue Blane’s designs do everything you could ask, transforming from Italianate garden to the ancient world with you barely noticing.

If one is being nitpicky, some of the real life characters don’t quite carry through their personalities to the main story as well as they should, notably the Contessa, who morphs from a wife seeming powerless to stop her husband’s infidelity into a statuesque Amazon about to teach him a lesson he will never forget. Still, perhaps that’s what she is really like underneath; in which case I’m not sure if the Count should be thrilled or concerned.

All round, a more than pleasing romp; easy on the eye, easy on the ear, and a good pick for a warm summer’s evening; and yes, it’s OK to laugh.

Sylvia continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to June 27.
See for details.