Joffrey Ballet dancers in Sylvia, photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey
This week, the Joffrey Ballet presented the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s Sylvia, a contemporary take on the mythological tale created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1997. With modern sets and costumes by Greek artist Yannis Kokkos and a lush score by Leo Delibes, the ballet represents yet another example of artistic director Ashley Wheater’s commitment to bringing reimagined classics to Joffrey's repertoire. With another week of performances left to go, Wheater spoke with Pointe about the production and Neumeier’s creative process.
Why did you decide to bring Sylvia to Chicago, and why John Neumeier’s version as opposed to a more traditional production?
I know Sir Frederick Ashton’s version of Sylvia really well, and I had worked on Mark Morris’s at San Francisco Ballet, too. But I think that it’s okay to show that there are different ways to tell a story. And Sylvia is a tricky story. What’s compelling about John’s production is that instead of trying to fulfill a narrative line, he went back to the original 16th century poems by Torquato Tasso. He also hasn’t over-complicated the musicality—you engage fully with it. And Neumeier was born and raised near here, so in a way it’s kind of a homecoming for him.
I also think America is ready to embrace John’s ideas, because for many years, his work had a hard time here. But the Chicago audience has been so enthusiastic and engaged. And I find it really interesting right now—San Francisco Ballet did his The Little Mermaid, Houston Ballet did his Midsummer Night’s Dream, Boston Ballet is about to premiere his Mahler’s Third Symphony. I think in the ballet world, there’s a shift that’s happening. People want to see new ideas.
What has working with Neumeier been like for the Joffrey dancers?
It’s been an amazing experience for the company. John is deeply thoughtful and really thinks about why he does something. He’s also not in the business of recreating his work—he’s in the business of creating work, so he made a huge amount of changes here in Chicago. As a living choreographer, he wanted to work directly with the dancers and use what they were bringing to the process. The company feels very inspired, because he goes beyond, "This is what the step is, this is the musicality." He wants you to dig for layers that are honest, that are coming from you.
The female characters in Sylvia are very empowered. Do you feel that the ballet has a lot of resonance for modern audiences?
If you go back to the original premiere in 1878, it broke away from the Romantic idea of story and tradition. It was quite radical at the time. The huntresses are fierce, determined women who are independent in their own right. In the original version of Sylvia, Diana had such a little role—she only appeared in the third act. But in John’s version, she’s very front and center. He added a lament for Diana revealing her love for Endymion—because of her love, she put him into eternal sleep to protect herself—to show us why she’s so protective of Sylvia. She doesn’t want her to make the same mistake. And she doesn’t win that battle—she loses Sylvia to love, and at the end Diana is the one who is still searching for the very thing that she craves.
If I look at Ashton’s choreography, it’s brilliant. It’s very much about the structure and architecture of the steps, which is so magical. But John’s version takes those layers and gets to the very heart of it. It’s about how in our life today we strive so much—like how dancers strive every day for their art form—and that because of ambition, we sometimes overlook our very deep, inner yearnings. John shows us that humanity very clearly.