These two performances of Sylvia, Ashton’s flawed but lovely ballet, felt like Christmas presents in beautifully presented parcels, each containing completely different interpretations of the leading roles. I saw Lauren Cuthbertson and Reece Clarke as Sylvia and Aminta on 2 December, followed by Natalia Osipova and Vadim Muntagirov on December 16.

Cuthbertson’s Sylvia showed the gradual development of a young woman who initially feels no need of a man, but who through tribulation, and with a little help from Eros, blossoms into maturity as love brings her fulfilment in the third act. Clarke matched this well integrated characterization by dancing a credible and not-too-drippy Aminta. In contrast, on 16 December, Muntagirov gave us a shepherd who was quite simply a gorgeous and elegant danseur noble, alongside Osipova’s nymph, which took the theatre by storm. Fiercely proud and independent in Act One, this Sylvia was magnificently self assured; the contempt with which she cast Aminta’s cloak into the wings was both amusing and breathtakingly arrogant. A risk-taker but clearly in charge, she played for high stakes in Act Two, flirting dangerously with her captor, before delivering a bravura showcase of dancing in Act Three that would be a spectacular culmination to any nineteenth century ballet.

Of the two Sylvias, I felt that Cuthbertson was more at ease with the choreographic style; swift yet unhurried, musical, and with neat footwork counterpointing her upper-body plasticity. However, this is not to underrate Osipova’s exceptional stage presence, attack and feel for drama and comedy, quite aside from her formidable technique and her ability to land spectacular jumps softly and silently. The corps de ballet, on the other hand, seemed rather heavy footed at both performances, with even the men, unencumbered by pointe shoes, thumping onto the stage. It was a pity that there were moments of untidiness (the opening dance of the woodland creatures seemed a little messy, particularly on 16 December), as in their better moments, the corps, and also Sylvia’s attendants, caught Ashton’s supple, low-bending, movements well, even though some of the ensemble dances are not his best work.

Sylvia is a delightfully silly ballet, complete with dancing goats and camp goose-stepping heralds, but it is also touching and romantic. Léo Delibes’ glorious score, the beautiful sets, and stage effects that included a ship and two vision scenes made this revival by Christopher Newton an enchanting Christmas entertainment.

Maggie Watson

26 December 2017