The National Ballet of Japan is currently in the middle of its latest performance, Leo Delibes’ Sylvia at the New National Theater, Tokyo. The New National Theater, Tokyo, is celebrating its fifteenth year by way of an artistic exchange with the United Kingdom. This production of Sylvia is directed and choreographed by the British choreographer, David Bintley, and is based on his 1993 production of the ballet.
My husband and I attended the premiere performance of Sylvia on Saturday, October 27th. The fact that this was an international collaboration had sparked our interest, and the British connection in particular promised the bringing of something new to this fabulous love story penned by Delibes in 1876.
The New National Theater, Tokyo was virtually booked out for the performance. We were fortunate to have got the last of the row 10, ground floor seats. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra was in the pit, under the baton of Paul Murphy, principal conductor of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
As the curtain went up on the dot of 2pm, expectations went down. Clearly an attempt had been made to give a contemporary twist to the story by sandwiching the traditional three acts of the ballet between a prologue that depicted a “modern” dysfunctional couple and family, and, one presumed, a similarly set denouement where the problems worked out in the course of the ballet would be resolved. Nice idea, but the reality was a white gauzy scene of players in twee nineteenth-century attire, presided over by a Sergeant Pepper-cum-Colonel Sanders Eros complete with twirled cane, twirled mustache, white suit, spats and a strutting pantomime gait. The tone was well and truly set. Two outrageously homosexual characters there for the laughs (and only just passionate enough about their act to avoid being eye-rolling) were on hand to distribute hunting accoutrements to the guests at the couple’s party, upon which those in possession of the appropriate props morphed into the fabled characters of the subsequent acts.
The sets, the work of Sue Blane, MBE, of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, maintained the quaint predictability of the prologue and gave the impression of having been conceived in a hurry between better things to do, they were so unimaginative. Set-wise the nadir came when Orian toppled a platitudinous ruined Greek pillar in his Act Three rage, which dutifully and cleanly fell over on its hinge with a big hollow clonk, i.e., comically.
The nadir of the dancing was when poor Ono Ayako, principal of the National Ballet of Japan, who played Sylvia, fell flat on her bottom right in the middle of dancing solo in Orian’s cave. She was up again and dancing again in a second, but not before her tumble had elicited a horrified shout from someone in the dress circle, and which had the whole audience biting its nails on her behalf for the next five minutes.
Ono’s fall was no doubt bad luck, but was, nevertheless, no more than the worst moment in what were two and a half hours of mediocre moments. The only dance moments with anything visceral whatsoever about them were, sadly, burlesque: the sinuous voguing of the gay characters in the prologue, and the depiction of the orgy in Orian’s cave by three or four male dancers who, locked in fleshy, scantily clad pairs, somersaulted athletically, but not very beautifully, over and through each other with what almost looked like a clumsiness assumed to elicit laughs (again, not least because it was evocative of gay sex), but which lacked coordinated finesse all the same.
Worse still was the overall woodenness of the dancing. Watching the New National Theater Tokyo’s Sylvia was like sitting in on ballet school rehearsal where the dancers had just mastered getting the moves down, but had yet to make them their own. There was a distinct lack of vigor and verve in the dancing, it was often sloppy in the details, and overall it failed as a vehicle of expression.
The production of Sylvia at the New National Theater, Tokyo, showed us once again that big names (which cost us over 12,000 yen a seat and the whole of a fairly sunny Saturday afternoon) are not always enough to make a performance memorable for the right reasons.
New National Theater, Tokyo
Tel: 03 5351 3011
1 minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line (Shinjuku Line)
Guide Books on Tokyo & Japan