Special Preview Section
by David Vaughan
Frederick Ashton would have been ninety years old on 17 September 1994. He often used to say that after his death most of his works would be considered passe and would fall into neglect. This was typically self-deprecating, yet it proved to be not too far from the truth, and shockingly soon. There was a sense that those who took over the direction of the Royal Ballet did indeed find his works silly and irrelevant. Whether or not this was actually the case, the number of his ballets in the company's repertory certainly declined. And if ballets are not danced, people forget how to dance them. It didn't help that in the Royal Ballet School the Russian influence was in the ascendant, while the Cecchetti system, the technical basis of Ashton's style, went into eclipse. (It has even been suggested that the Russian-based training, with its emphasis on athleticism, is the cause of the growing number of injuries in the company's ranks.)
A few ballets remained in the active repertory—the term is of course a relative one in the case of the Royal Ballet; it is possible that more Ashton ballets would be danced more often if the Royal Ballet gave more performances in general than its usual two or three a week. La Fille mal gardee, The Dream, A Month in the Country have become classics; Cinderella comes around every other Christmas, more or less; Scènes de ballet, in the opinion of many, including Ashton himself, his best ballet, is brought back every so often. (Even some of these suffered from the general neglect.) The revival of Ondine came and went a few years ago; a stage version of the film Tales of Beatrix Potter, a more misguided addition to the repertory, seems to have stuck, as another Christmas treat.
Anthony Dowell, the company's director, became a principal and indeed a star during the time of Ashton's directorship. Anthony Russell-Roberts, the administrative director, is Ashton's nephew and the executor of his estate. One would hope that these two men would have a personal interest in seeing that Ashton's work survives. And they did in fact mount a series of Ashton revivals during the first months of the current, 1994-1995, season, as well as cooperating in the memorable Ashton conference organized by Stephanie Jordan at the Roehampton Institute in November.
That conference, and the programs at Covent Garden, should have left no doubt in anyone's mind that Ashton's work still has its devotees. People came from all over for the conference, and the performances at the Opera House were sold out. Ashton no doubt would have groaned at the thought of his work's being discussed by scholars. (When I was writing my book he used to ask me, "Who's going to want to read all those facts?") But the great thing about the conference was that there was so much dancing. Present and former members of the Royal Ballet gave generously of their time. Monica Mason, not known chiefly as an Ashton dancer, led an illuminating workshop session on one of the variations from Birthday Offering. It was wonderful to be reminded of what a great dancer Antoinette Sibley was by her coaching of variations from Scènes de ballet and, with Dowell, of the "Nocturne" pas de deux from The Dream. Pamela May coached two variations Ashton had choreographed for the Royal Academy of Dancing "Solo Seal" examinations, the existence of which has only recently come to the knowledge of "outsiders." The penultimate session on the Sunday afternoon was a studio performance by members of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, in costume and make-up, of some of the numbers from Enigma Variations, the revival of which was Michael Somes's last contribution to Ashton preservation.
The weekend of the conference fell between the second and third performances of the first program of revivals ("Frederick Ashton Celebrated"). A second program ("Frederick Ashton Remembered") was to follow in December, with reconstructions of two pas de deux that have not been seen for many years, the "Air" pas de deux from Homage to the Queen and the Raymonda pas de deux (1962). The first program also included two pas de deux, from Sylvia and from Birthday Offering.
The latter was to have been danced by Darcey Bussell, but because she was absent through injury it was danced by Lesley Collier, with Jonathan Cope, the first time Collier had been on stage since her injury in Washington in April 1994. She is now in her forties and, injury or no injury, is going through that phase of a late flowering that can be so moving in a ballerina (or singer, for that matter), when the technique can still be called upon to support the interpretive artistry. She was in fact one of the very few people in this program who had actually worked with Ashton, and hers was the most Ashtonian performance of the evening, in its musicality, its purity of line, its poetry. There are no pyrotechnics in this dance; Ashton had recently seen John Cranko's Lady and the Fool, with a pas de deux full of lifts, and he decided to show that you could make one without any lifts at all, or at least none in which the ballerina is lifted more than a few inches off the floor.
Such restraint would not do for a Bolshoi showpiece, which is what Irek Mukhamedov turned the Sylvia pas de deux into, dancing opposite Viviana Durante. The pas de deux is all that survives of that marvelous ballet; I have seen Collier dance it on a previous occasion, and regret that she never had the chance to dance the whole ballet (I can't say that I would want to see Durante do it). Russell-Roberts dropped a tantalizing hint at a panel discussion on Ashton style that one day the Royal Ballet might revive the whole ballet, a project that may seem more attractive to the management after the disaster of the recent David Bintley version.
Ashton's La Valse is one ballet that does get revived every so often, and I have never understood why. It is one of his weakest works, choreographed for a large corps de ballet with three principal couples. Ashton continually falls back on that least interesting of formal devices, in which three or more couples-sometimes a stage-full-all do the same thing. And he follows the music far more literally than in his better ballets. As for the atmosphere of foreboding so strongly present in the music, at a certain point he has everyone stop and listen and droop a bit, and brings on the dry ice, and that's it for atmosphere.
In his lifetime Ashton was very particular about whom he allowed to dance Symphonic Variations, and I doubt that he would have approved of the cast that finally made it on stage in this program after more dancers were felled by injury. After all, the original cast included three ballerinas, Fonteyn, May, and Moira Shearer; any line-up less stellar, and you are in trouble. This cast was led by Durante, certainly a company principal, but to my eye (and ear) a less musical dancer than Ashton's work requires, with Belinda Hatley, a "Soloist," and Larissa Bamber, a "First Artist," as the side ballerinas. Apart from anything else, they were physically ill-sorted. The men were Bruce Sansom, Errol Pickford, and William Trevitt, who are indeed among the best in the company, though the famous off-balance pirouettes eluded Pickford. As a London colleague said, "did you ever think you'd live to see the day when ABT danced Symphonic better than the Royal?" An important difference, however, was that Sophie Fedorovitch's decor looks right at Covent Garden—the proportions of the stage are perfect for it, unlike those of the Metropolitan.
The major revival of the program was Daphnis and Chloe, which has not been given, I believe, since the company brought it to New York, it must have been a dozen years ago. I am one of those who thought that the original designs by John Craxton, intended to be timeless, had in fact dated, but the Royal's record of redesigning has been so abysmal of late (e.g. the recent mounting of Cinderella and, of course, most egregiously, last year's new Sleeping Beauty) that I am now more inclined to believe that it would be better to leave well enough alone.
The new designs for Daphnis by Martyn Bainbridge tend to support that conclusion. (They look better in the program book than on the stage.) The basic design for the scenery features an arched opening which frames, in the three scenes, a sun-baked landscape, a night sky, and the sea. The arch is also filled from top to bottom with horizontal strings or wires that give a shimmering effect as of a heat haze or the reflection of the sea. Of course, to describe an archway framing a sun-baked landscape is to evoke the memory of Picasso's set for Le Tricorne, one of the greatest stage designs of all time, and Bainbridge's is bound to suffer from the comparison. It's the difference between a painter of genius using the stage as his canvas and a clever student of stage design. When I add that the wall of the archway is covered with Greek lettering, including the names of the creators of the ballet rendered in the Greek alphabet, it will become clear that this is a design with at least one idea too many.
Craxton dressed the men in pants and the women in dirndls. Here the costumes look more antique than modern and are a little too fussy; so are the women's coiffures. I missed most of all the crimson bolero jacket that Fonteyn wore in the finale. Pan's leggings, presumably meant to be fur, looked more like tulle, which was peculiar.
Sarah Wildor, the Royal's talented new dancer (promoted to "Soloist" just before these performances) was originally announced for the role of Chloe, but she too was injured. Durante was second cast, but obviously had enough to do already. So the Royal Ballet brought in Trinidad Sevillano, who had recently left the Boston Ballet, joined and very quickly left the Australian Ballet, and hence happened to be available. Sevillano had worked with Ashton a little when she was to dance his Romeo and Juliet with London Festival Ballet. (He was pleased to find he could still converse with her in Spanish.) Considering that she learned the part on very short notice, her assumption of it was very successful. If one's ideal for the part is Fonteyn, then Sevillano is physically far from that ideal, but, as someone said, she does look like a shepherdess. She is not Fonteyn, obviously, and it is to her credit that she didn't try to be.
Daphnis is a difficult role, a passive hero who has everything done for him--Pan rescues Chloe from a fate worse than death, and Lykanion initiates him into the mysteries of sex. Both Stuart Cassidy and Bruce Sansom made the best of it, they are handsome and danced well, particularly in the solo in Scene 1, one of Ashton's beautiful adagio male solos. Adam Cooper, as Dorkon, was a convincing rival. The other two principal roles were less happily cast: Benazir Hussein was a bit too much like Ann Miller as Lykanion, while Matthew Hart, as the pirate chief Bryaxis, looked as if he couldn't hurt a fly. There weren't many people on stage who had worked with Ashton; I couldn't help feeling that Nicole Roberts should have danced Chloe, Genesia Rosato Lykanion, and Ashley Page Bryaxis.
Having said all that, I want to make it clear that I was very happy to see Daphnis again. No program credit was given for the staging of the revival, which seemed pretty faithful to me. I missed the sense of the numinous that used to be so potent in the dance of the three Nymphs of Pan at the end of Scene 1 and in the pirates' dance of panic at the end of Scene 2. I don't look forward with much confidence to the tenure of Debra Craine, newly appointed dance critic of the London Times, who wrote of the "weakness of the original choreography," "the thinness of its invention," "the stasis that ultimately grounds the piece." For me, it is one of Ashton's greatest ballets. His genius shows in the spareness of much of the choreography, like an armature within the lushness of the score. The finale never fails to reduce me to tears by the sheer perfection and simplicity of its form.
It is a measure of Ashton's musicality that these and other passages never fail to be evoked in my mind's eye by a hearing of the music. (Superbly played, by the way, on this occasion under Bernard Haitink, musical director of the Royal Opera.) Daphnis is a ballet that lingers long in the memory. I just hope that it remains in the repertory of the Royal Ballet. Indeed, I hope that the Royal Ballet will continue to remember and celebrate Ashton, so that when his hundredth birthday comes along in the year 2004 his work will be alive and well.