Sylvia

The San Francisco Ballet at the New York State Theater on Friday, July 28.

The word nymph typically invokes wispy, nature-loving little sprites, the sort of girls whom a stiff breeze might topple. We forget that in classical mythology, the nymphs of Artemis (Diana to the Romans) were mighty huntresses, defiantly independent and fiercely draconian (peeping Toms were subject to the death penalty) — nothing wispy about them.

Choreographer Mark Morris gets that right. It’s one of the few elements of his Sylvia that I will unreservedly praise, but setting that aside for now, his nymphs in Sylvia aren’t remotely pixie-ish, and that works. The titular Sylvia is particularly commanding. As played by Vanessa Zahorian, Sylvia is beautiful and womanly but not the delicate waif we see in so many ballets. Her movements, her physical presence, sometimes seem more traditionally masculine than feminine, not in the steps but in her stance and bearing. Morris’ choreography makes it clear that Sylvia is no one’s distressed damsel.

The heroine’s overt strength is one of the few nods to modernity, though. For the most part, Morris stays within the confines of traditional ballet, albeit with a few irreverent tweaks. The opening scene of dryads, satyrs and naiads, for example, is a charmingly graceful depiction of mythical ménage à trois, and the clash between the prim elegance of the style and the gleeful debauchery of the subject manages to be kind of cute, adorable even. Morris’ occasional peppering of contemporary dance steps into the ballet sometimes doesn’t succeed so well. In the third act, a group of slave women dance barefoot, moving their legs with bluntly flexed feet, an exotic touch that fits, but their Shakira-esque hip shakes are jarring and unnecessary.

Sadly, that’s not the only jarring moment. The goddess Diana repeatedly leans heavily on a pointed toe with a sharply bended knee; I think it’s supposed to evoke power, but it just looked arthritic to me. Morris’ choreography for the ballet’s villain, Orion, is strangely jokey, like Snidely Whiplash with jazz hands. At the conclusion of the ballet, after the revelation of the deus ex machina, one character actually claps fist to palm in a “Curses, foiled again!” manner that provoked laughs but completely broke the mood.

I confess I’m not sure what Morris wanted to accomplish with Sylvia — is it supposed to be funny, satiric, campy, romantic? — and I’m not sure the San Francisco Ballet does either. Most of the dancing Friday night felt deflated and uninspired to me. Some of the group dances — the dryad-satyr-naiad orgy, the dance of Orion’s slaves — had a sense of magic about them, but most of the work felt flat and empty.

Zahorian was serviceable as the titular character, but she often didn’t have much to do. Geunnaedi Nedviguine brought a goofy earnestness to Aminta, the shepherd who loves Sylvia, but he, too, spends much of the action offstage or lying dead onstage before Eros shows up to revive her. Their third act pas de deux has charm but not much opportunity for either to shine, and indeed, neither did.

Maybe Morris leaned too heavily on pantomime, not giving the principals enough to do, but the problem went deeper than that. In the program, he insisted that he didn’t want to modernize Sylvia but to play it straight, but his choreography kept hinting at camp. Out of his idiom, Morris seemed uncertain, like a storyteller who doesn’t know how he wants his listeners to feel about his tale. Even his strong, defiant Sylvia seemed adrift, stranded in an admittedly silly tale without much indication of whether she should be going for tears or laughs. Even with her powerful stance, she was flailing.