Ballet is a collaboration on many levels. In the case of a story as enduring as Sylvia – the classic French ballet first staged more than a century ago and now being adapted for modern audiences by The Australian Ballet in tandem with Houston Ballet – that collaboration becomes all the more important.

Obviously choreography is key, but for world-renowned costume and set designer Jérôme Kaplan, his part of the collaborative process on Sylvia started with absorbing the stately yet playful score by fellow Frenchman Léo Delibes back in 1876. “For a ballet, the most important thing is the music,” says Kaplan, who studied scenography in his native Paris. Then comes studying the story.

“We have an original story that mixes Greek mythology with the story of Sylvia,” Kaplan says, praising the narrative clarity of choreographer Stanton Welch ahead of Sylvia’s Australian premiere in Melbourne. “The art of ballet must be clear, not just abstract dance. It’s really important that the audience follow the story. I can tell the story visually in a way, following the wishes of the choreographer or director.”

For an adaptation billed as “The Wonder Woman of Dance,” the costumes need to mirror the action-packed dynamism of the story. Welch’s adaptation turns the ballet’s traditional “damsels in distress” into dashing superheroines navigating the capricious gods and creatures of ancient Greece. Those three protagonists – the archer goddess Artemis, the titular nymph Sylvia and the perennially cheeky Psyche – each get their own love story, as well as plenty of swashbuckling adventure and personal agency.

They must each stand their own ground visually too, which Kaplan ensures they do, even when sharing the stage with furry-haunched satyrs, vengeful gods and even a life-sized brown bear. As for the Wonder Woman comparison, that makes sense after just a glimpse of Artemis striking a battle-ready pose in silver armour with bow and sword in hand. To achieve era-appropriate costumes that also show off the dancers’ athletic forms, Kaplan did plenty of research, studying classical Greek statues firsthand in museums in New York and London.

For Sylvia Kaplan has reunited with projection designer Wendall K Harrington, who minted their working relationship on The Australian Ballet’s production of Cinderella in 2018. That same year, Kaplan worked on the company’s adaptation of Spartacus in Melbourne and Sydney. But despite working with the some of the same collaborators, Kaplan makes sure to never to fall into a predictable approach to his craft.

“I don’t want to do a ‘Jérôme Kaplan style’, because for me that doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “[Instead] I imagine what I would like to see as an audience [member]. People know the different versions, so I try to do something interesting.”

The challenge of costumes in ballet, of course, is that they must resonate even when seen from quite some distance away. That’s even more crucial now than in the 16th and 17th centuries, when more intimate venues meant that costumes were much smaller by comparison. “I try to find some fabric, colour or detail that can stay beautiful [from any perspective],” Kaplan explains. “Most of the time it’s not so beautiful when you are close up. You need to find strong effects and strong shapes. Everything must be bigger – when you do a line, when you do a shape – and the colour must be stronger.”

That said, he acknowledges the collaborative process that means working with lighting designers and others to strike a balance that works best for everyone. Applying a sport metaphor, he says a ballet’s choreographer is the captain that the rest of the team is ultimately serving. “Everyone needs to feel free when they create something,” he says. “So everybody on the team must be gentle with the work of the others.”

While he rose to fame in his native France, the birthplace of Sylvia, Kaplan has worked on enough productions in Australia to enjoy the different energy here, which he sees as more positive and vigorous for the most part.

“People [in France] complain about a lot of things,” he says. “They don’t realise they live in one of the best countries in the world. What I like about Australia – and it’s also like this in the company – is people are in a good mood.”

That winsome robustness even extends to the dancers’ actual physicality, which is ideal for a bustling tale of mischief and adventure set against the lively backdrop of Greek legend. “They are tall and strong and very sporting,” Kaplan says. “For this story, you need to have that strong energy, especially for Sylvia and [the other] warriors. It’s a really athletic ballet."

Sylvia performance dates
Melbourne 31 August – 10 September 2019
Sydney 8 November – 23 November 2019

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