I have long wished to swim through the other-worlds created by Georges Méliès, and Stanton Welch’s Sylvia, a co-production between Houston Ballet and the Australian Ballet, gives me the opportunity to do just that; to submerge myself in a fantastical landscape that delights in the play of model making and storytelling; in how we tell a story and the story itself. Theatrical and larger than life.
To me, the beauty of Méliès’ 1903 film, The Kingdom of the Fairies (Le Royaume des Fées), is derived in equal measure from the magical figures that appear to swim and the visibility of the harness around their forms that lets the performers achieve this sensation. I love the aquatic underworld Méliès has created for the detectable mechanics of his illusions as much as the effect of the creative illusions themselves. It is the freedom to dream while still being tethered to the practicalities of a set. It is the tension between the trick and how it is done, and between character and performer, and by extension between fairy and human, god and mortal that draws parallels between Sylvia and The Kingdom of the Fairies.
Both permit me one stage-front perspective. The painted grotto in The Kingdom is outward facing. (The camera doesn’t weave through the landscape as lighter and smaller technology permits now, rather it is before a stage in which elements roll in from the left and right, and curtains of landscape lift and lower to create movement and depth of field.) My mind knows that the grotto is a façade that if viewed from behind it would reveal the raw timber support. The very essence of this magic trick from over a century ago is in Sylvia. Indeed, both feature a painted grotto, and projections not so very different in reach. Where Méliès gives us a layered collage of fish swimming over the scene in order to suggest water, Wendall K. Harrington gives us projections onto the interchangeable surfaces of Jérôme Kaplan’s set design.