Portland Ballet’s”Sylvia” at Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Photo by Jennifer Jones

Archery season in Maine may be months away but there were bunches of bows being artfully handled this past weekend at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. The Portland Ballet presented a romantic and engrossing premiere production of Artistic Director Nell Shipman’s new version of the classic ballet “Sylvia.”

Dozens of dancers, ranging from very young beginners to mature professionals, filled the wide stage for 90 minutes of dance and non-verbal storytelling that evoked a magical woodland realm where gods and mortals get all mixed up in each other’s business. Of course, the business is love and, after a bit of exciting adventure, most everyone roots for a happy ending.

Looking for romance, Shepherd Amyntas (Elliott Evans) appeals to a statue of Eros, the God of Love, for assistance. Soon, a group of bow-wielding nymph huntresses appear. Among them is the beautiful Sylvia (Grace Koury). Though such a nymph/mortal love relationship is forbidden by Artemis (Erica Diesl), the Goddess of the Hunt, invisible arrows of endearment are launched by a now embodied Eros (Jackson Gormley) to establish the bonding of Amyntas and Sylvia. Then, alas, a more sinister shaft, shot by the jealous suitor Orion (Eugene Mesheryakov), temporarily breaks them apart.

In her spoken introduction to Saturday’s performance, choreographer Shipman mentioned that her take on the classic story included not only a sense of fierce independence but also a sweet silliness about the goings-on in this particular enchanted forest. Indeed, both elements were to be enjoyed in performances mixing elegant formal ballet with bits of laugh-inducing pantomime, all in the service of providing what was a complete theatrical experience.

Koury and Evans were well matched in both assertive and lyrical passages inspired by the recorded music of Delibes. They created a dreamy sense of that special sort of romantic excitement that transcends mere gestures and steps.

It was announced that Diesl, along with Eliana Trenam, a huntress in the production, would be retiring after many stellar years with the Portland Ballet. Each gave a refined performance. Complemented by an exuberant Gormley, Diesl set the terms of the performance to a high level. Trenam’s work, likewise, stood out for its strength of expression.
Whether mocking Amyntas or drinking himself into a staggering stupor, Mesheryakov was a comedic delight. His brief partnering with a reluctant Sylvia was more deeply touching. The vigorous party of huntresses offered an assertive confidence while the gentler group of Grecians secured mellower interludes. Finally, the little Woodland Creatures exhibited numerous variations of cuteness.

The ramp, trees, rocks and sculptures designed by Jamie Grant, Austin Phillips and Olivia Houston and costumes by Amy Baxter all added to a sophisticated but also kind of fun and folksy finale to the Portland Ballet’s 2022-2023 season.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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