writers on dancing


"Sylvia" and Mixed Bills at Covent Garden

Royal Ballet:
Ashton 100 celebrations
Covent Garden Opera House
November 2004

by David Vaughan
copyright © 2004 by David Vaughan

Frederick Ashton’s centennial is being celebrated from top to bottom of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, these days: an exhibition of photographs (some of them rare), designs, costumes, and other artifacts extends from the corridors of the amphitheatre to the subterranean Linbury Theatre; "Frederick Ashton," a new publication in the Opera House’s Heritage Series, edited by Cristina Franchi, curator of the exhibition, contains many of the same images; and of course on the stage his ballets are being danced. True, the first mixed bill of the season included only one Ashton ballet, a revival of "A Wedding Bouquet;" together with Kenneth MacMillan’s "Requiem" (Fauré), actually made as a memorial to another choreographer, John Cranko; and Bronislava Nijinska’s "Les Noces," which entered the Royal repertory in 1966 at Ashton’s behest.

A second triple bill was all Ashton: "Scènes de ballet" and "Daphnis and Chloë," with a selection of divertissements in between, as was done at the Lincoln Center Festival this summer. Alina Cojocaru and Miyako Yoshida alternated in the ballerina roles of "Scènes" and 'Daphnis': frankly, I would like to have seen Cojocaru in both ballets every time, but one can’t have everything. She is now as close to perfection in the Stravinsky ballet as one could hope to see nowadays, and I am glad to say her performance has been recorded for BBC television (dare one hope for a DVD?). It’s a ballet I never tire of, in fact I see something I never noticed before every time. Ms. Cojocaru was injured and did not dance in the earlier performances of 'Daphnis' in the spring, which I reviewed here on June 8th. Her assumption of the role of Chloë in this new program made all the difference: her performance of the piteous solo in the second scene brought tears to my eyes the way Fonteyn did years ago, and in a different way the dance to the flute solo in Scene 3 was just as moving. There were strong performances too from Federico Bonelli, as Daphnis, Martin Harvey or Thiago Soares as Dorkon, Jonathan Howells as Bryaxis, the pirate chief.

Some of the divertissements were the same as we saw in the Lincoln Center Festival: Darcey Bussell in the “Awakening” pas de deux from the 1968 production of 'Sleeping Beauty,' partnered now by Jonathan Cope, absent through injury in the summer (I’m glad they wear the proper costumes by Lila de Nobili); the 'Thaïs' pas de deux, that ravishing masterpiece, danced both times I saw it by Mara Galeazzi and Mr. Soares (I was sorry to have missed the American Sarah Lamb with Mr. Bonelli, who benefited from a recent public coaching session with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell); "Voices of Spring," with Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta, who made it playful and even sexy, as well as dancing up a storm.

The new addition was Frederic Franklin’s reconstruction of two numbers from the lost ballet "Devil’s Holiday," which was seen in Cincinnati a couple of years ago, and now at last brought to the stage at Covent Garden sixty-five years after the ballet was meant to have its world premiere there in September 1939. (Ten years later, Mr. Franklin did perform there with Alexandra Danilova, as guest artists with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in an unforgettable performance of "Coppélia.") Incomprehensibly, the man’s variation and the pas de deux were performed as separate numbers; this makes no sense, the solo ends with the man reclining on the floor and the woman enters to him—this way, he had to come in and lie down as she came towards him. Though one longs to see these dances in the context of the whole ballet, they are fascinating enough choreographically to be more than a mere curiosity. A recurrrent motif is that of dropping to one knee: the man finishes jetés, doubles tour en l’air, pirouetttes that way—and then circles the stage doing a kind of modern dance knee hinge to both knees, which the woman echoes, supported, in the duet. Again I saw only one cast, the Russian Viacheslav Samodurov (who gave it an appropriate Ballet Russe touch) with Isabel McMeekan.

In between these two excerpts we saw the" Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan," made originally for Lynn Seymour and staged by her. They were performed sensationally in the summer by Molly Smolen of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. At Covent Garden, they were danced by the Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo. I wish I could join the chorus of praise her interpretation has received, but I have to say I found it totally fake. Ms. Rojo has great credentials: trained by Victor Ullate and David Howard, she’s danced in other important companies, but she remains a mystery to me. In these dances one could sense her trying to work herself up to the proper pitch of emotion (instead of just doing them); the gestures were exaggerated—“now I’m doing THIS gesture from an Abraham Walkowitz drawing, now I’m doing THAT one.” The pauses in between were so prolonged as to disrupt the continuity—I counted nearly a minute before the final waltz.

The major project of the Ashton celebration is the long-awaited reconstruction of "Sylvia," in a version as close as possible to the original three acts, which had been whittled down over the years first to two acts, then to one, and finally to the Act III pas de deux, often performed as a divertissement. The reconstruction was carefully, indeed lovingly accomplished by Christopher Newton, who is no longer on the actual staff of the company but freelances as a teacher and stager of Ashton ballets. His version omits a couple of numbers from the original third act, to interpolated music from "La Source." Otherwise Léo Delibes’s score is played, as far as I can tell, without any significant cuts, and it is a masterpiece. (Tchaikovsky famously said that if he had known it before he composed "Swan Lake," he would never have written that ballet.) The most important record of the original version of Ashton’s "Sylvia" is a film, without sound, of a rehearsal at Covent Garden, bits of which can be seen in a video projected on the wall above the box-office area in the Opera House; Benesh notation of the one-act version is supposed to exist, but this is not mentioned in the essay on the reconstruction by Clifford Bishop in the program book. Otherwise Newton had the help of several former members of the company who had danced the ballet at various times, including Monica Mason, now happily installed as the company’s director. (Unlike some companies, the Royal Ballet is generous in calling upon the services of such people for coaching.)

If "Ondine" enshrined the genius of Margot Fonteyn as a romantic dancer, "Sylvia" was made, in 1952, to display her increasing virtuosity—in three different guises, the Amazon of Act I, the seductress of Act II, and the classic ballerina of Act III. In the revival, the role has been danced (so far) by three ballerinas: Darcey Bussell, Marianela Nuñez, and Zenaida Yanowsky (whom I did not see). Ms. Bussell has found her perfect Ashton role in "Sylvia." (She has not so far danced Cinderella in the new production, but she did so beautifully in the old one a few years ago.) I was told that on the opening night, early in November, she was somewhat tentative, but by the time I saw her a fortnight later, she triumphed. All through the ballet one sees yet again Ashton’s love of the classic vocabulary for its own sake, especially in the ballerina role. Act I, once she enters, is like a string of short variations for her, interspersed with passages for her eight attendants, in which Ashton delights in inventing challenging new steps. Stephanie Jordan has observed how Ashton often has the dancers jumping or extending a leg in a battement on the upbeat, and all through I found myself noticing this—how it lets air into the phrase, so to speak.

Aminta, the shepherd who loves Sylvia, though a passive character, has one of Ashton’s characteristic legato male variations on his first entrance, to music that presumably originally accompanied a mime scene. He’s not in Act II at all (like Daphnis, he’s passed out), but has a bravura variation in Act III to make up for it. And the pas de deux that follows is one of Ashton’s greatest—as P.W. Manchester wrote, Ashton “never forgets that a pas de deux is also a love scene.” The exquisitely tender moment when Aminta draws Sylvia’s head back on to his shoulder (echoed in "Thaïs") was not quite realized. (Nancy Goldner, in a perceptive essay on the 2004 Lincoln Center Ashton celebration in the British magazine "Dance Now," quoted Balanchine as saying “that if you put a man and woman together on stage, you’ve got a story,” and added “With Ashton, you’ve got a pas de deux,” an astonishing observation in view of the final pas de deux in "The Two Pigeons" or "The Dream," or "Thaïs," Ashton at his most erotic, or even "Voices of Spring," which is like a flirtation.)

Ashton wisely resisted the temptation, or the suggestion, to make fun of Sylvia, but there is one delicious comic passage, when Eros, having descended from his perch as a statue, enters disguised as a sorcerer. One can imagine Ashton himself demonstrating his precise little prances and batterie. The one place where he can be accused of giving in to being twee is the number for the sacrificial goats that comes between the principals’ variations in Act III and the pas de deux itself. This must have been his idea: in the score it’s called Pas d’esclaves. And he must have been pleased with it, for he made a new dance for the goats in the one-act version to the Scherzo for the “Sylvans.”

But on the whole "Sylvia" is more than mere pastiche—one might even make an argument for calling it post-modernist avant la lettre. And it is beautifully served by the designs of Robin and Christopher Ironside—with the second act here recreated by Peter Farmer—though as usual at Covent Garden they could be better lit, in fact, they could be lit, the backgrounds of both Acts I and II are lost in murk. (And there were unforgivable creases in the backcloth of the first scene of "Daphnis and Chloë.") Act III was better, with its temple out of a landscape by Claude and the vision of Diana with a hunky Endymion.

The Royal Ballet is a strong company now: there was fine dancing from Jonathan Cope, back on form, as Aminta, both Thiago Soares and Viacheslav Samodurov as the villainous Orion, and both Martin Harvey and Joshua Tuifua as Eros. Ms. Nuñez, very assured as Sylvia, was partnered by the young Rupert Pennefather, rather a wooden actor but a promising danseur. Like every company nowadays, the Royal has Latino and Russian dancers in its roster, to say nothing of Rumanian Cojocaru, Danish Johan Kobborg, French Janowsky, and the Americans Deirdre Chapman and Sarah Lamb, which inevitably again raises the question of how well they have assimilated the supposedly quintessentially English Ashton style. It is true that more could be done to impart some of its subtleties, but with the level of dancing this high, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept for the moment, because the most important thing is that the company should dance these ballets. One gets the feeling that the dancers are having a good time doing so, and the audience, too, shows an appreciation of the works. What’s more, they appear to be buying tickets—the performances I attended were almost sold out—which I hope bodes well for the future of Ashton’s presence in the Royal Ballet repertory.

First: Darcey Bussell and dancers of the Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's "Requiem". Photo by Johan Persson.
Second:  Isabel McMeekan in Ashton's "Devil's Holiday". Photo: Dee Conway.
Third:  Jonathan Cope as Aminta Mara Galeazzi as Diana Darcey Bussell as Sylvia Martin Harvey as Eros in Ashton's "Sylvia.". Photo: Bill Cooper.

Volume 2, No. 45
November 29, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by David Vaughan


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