writers on dancing


Special Preview Section

Lincoln Center Festival
Ashton Celebration
July 6-17, 2004

The Ballets

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2004 by Alexandra Tomalonis
published July 4, 2004

To learn more about Ashton's ballets, read David Vaughan's "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets." The second edition, published in 1999, has complete coverage of Ashton's career. If it's not in your local bookshop, you can order it on Amazon.

For production and casting information about all productions of Ashton ballets, dances in revues, operas, etc., see:
David Vaughan's Chronology of Ashton's Ballets
From his book, "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets," updated

Awakening Pas de Deux from "The Sleeping Beauty" (1968)

A lyrical duet for Aurora and Prince Florimund choreographed to the entr'acte music (following the awakening kiss). Thought by some to be stylistically inconsistent with Petipa's 19th century classicism (in our more eclectic times, this would likely not be noticed, much less provoke an objection), the pas de deux was soon dropped from the full production.

Pas de Deux from "A Birthday Offering" (1956)

"Birthday Offering," a classical ballet to music of Glazunov for seven couples led by Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, was originally created as a pièce d'occasion for the Royal Ballet's 25th anniversary. The costumes, with their long tutus and headdresses for the ballerinas, evoked the late Petipa era.  Ashton revised the ballet slightly for Rudolf Nureyev in the 1960s. Like several of Ashton's "pièce d'occasion," the ballet remained in repertory for several years (and was danced quite successfully by American Ballet Theatre in 1989). David Vaughan wrote this about the ballet in his "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets": "Each of the danseuses had a solo variation, the men danced a Mazurka, there was a pas de deux for Fonteyn and Somes, and the Finale was a reprise of the opening. The variations were tailored to the indiviudal qualities of each ballerina—particularly memorable were Beriosova's gracious solo, Nerina's with its brilliant leaps and double turns in the air, the languor of Elvin's and the amplitude of Grey's; Fonteyn's variation exploited her exquisite batterie, as when she travelled backwards with a frisson-like frappé of the working foot, punctuated by a little shrug of the shoulders." (pp. 284-285)

"Cinderella" (1948)

The Royal Ballet will bring a newly designed production of Ashton's "Cinderella," a classical ballet in three acts intended for Margot Fonteyn, although Moira Shearer danced the first performances. In "Cinderella," to the Prokofiev score, Ashton reinvigorated Petipa's rules and conventions which, at the end of the Ballet Russe period with its dramatic ballets and mistrust of "mere divertissements," would have seemed either reactionary or revolutionary, depending on one's point of view. The fairy variations (a Fairy Godmother and Four Seasons) are divine; the grand pas de deux (in Act II) is clear descendant of Petipa's Act III pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty," one of the crown jewels of the Royal's repertory during that period; the Jester (created by Alexander Grant) was a true medieval Fool, ironic confidant to the Prince as well as a virtuoso; and the Ugly Stepsisters, created by Ashton (the sweet, befuddled one) and Robert Helpmann (the bossy one) were inspired by Britain's pantomine tradition.

"Dante Sonata" (1940)

From Jane Simpson's London Report in "DanceView," Summer 2000:

"Most of the interest, of course, centred on the revival of "Dante Sonata". Not seen since 1950, it is the piece many Ashton lovers would have put at the top of their wishlist of miraculous resurrections; but only last summer its owner, Ashton's nephew Anthony Russell-Roberts, described any prospect of seeing it again as 'hopeless'. He had reckoned without the determination of David Bintley, and the astonishing memory of some of the older ex-dancers. Jean Bedells, for instance, danced in the company in the '40s and her recollection of every ballet she danced in does indeed verge on the miraculous. She was largely responsible for the production of de Valois' "Prospect before Us" a couple of years ago, and it's tantalising to wonder what else she could do if someone were to ask her. The money that the Royal Ballet has spent on even just one of its failed new works over the last ten years could have enabled priceless works from their heritage to be saved for future generations.

"Dance goers of my age, who missed "Dante Sonata" by only a few years, know the photographs of the first production by heart—Fonteyn and Somes looking noble and beautiful, Helpmann and June Brae triumphantly malicious, Pamela May, with blonde hair streaming, in a beautiful jump; and we've pored endlessly over the contorted groups, wondering what linked them and what it was that made the ballet so unforgettable. However careful the revival, of course, it can't recreate the conditions in which the original was seen. First performed in 1940, it became a constant in the repertory through the years of World War ll, and the resonance of the struggle on stage between good and evil must have been unimaginably greater when everyone in the audience would be leaving the theatre to spend the night firefighting or listening to bombs falling around their shelter. We may not be able to feel such a direct personal involvement, but there is sadly no lack of contemporary situations to parallel the action, and even without such a subtext, the ballet itself still delivers an astonishingly powerful emotional kick.

"The Playhouse may not have suite "Scenes de Ballet," but its format—one very steeply raked bank of seats, giving the effect almost of looking down into a pit— was perfect for "Dante Sonata," whose backcloth (one of Sophie Fedorovitch's minimalist masterpieces) consists only of a few lines, and can be interpreted as a flight of steps—down into hell or up into heaven. The first dancer enters from the back left corner, moving along a shaft of light, and we are immediately drawn into a world quite different from anything else we know from Ashton. It wasn't the bare feet, hardly noticeable these days, or the much freer dance vocabulary, that most struck me, but the atmosphere of unrestrained feeling—so unexpected from Ashton that at first it seems almost indecent. The dancers, too, must have found it difficult to begin with, but by the time I saw it they seemed quite relaxed about such overt soul-baring, and delivered a fine performance. For even better balance I'd prefer a stronger character in Michael Somes' role, but Monica Zamora in the part created by Fonteyn was excellent—indeed this was perhaps the best thing I've ever seen her do.

"One thing that strikes me very strongly, contemplating the success of the ballet, is how fortunate Ashton was to have working with him not only Fedorovitch but also Constant Lambert, who chose and arranged the music. To be able to rely on the understanding of such artists must have greatly increased the freedom of his own creativity. Certainly on this occasion he spoke with a passionate openness which he never used again: only "Marguerite and Armand," though of course inspired by totally different circumstances, approaches its level of heightened sensation. There is an extraordinary, almost demented solo, first made for Pamela May, and a crucifixion scene half way through which had me, and I suspect many others, close to tears. As to the authenticity of the revival, those who saw the original seemed very happy with it. I did wonder if perhaps it had been easier to remember the dramatic set pieces, as some of the linking sections looked a bit more tentative. Anyway, I hope that now this important ballet has been restored, it will be properly treated—I'd hate to see it just tossed into the middle of any old triple bill, or its effect blunted by over repetition; but carefully programmed occasional showings could be something to treasure for ever."

"Enigma Variations"  (1968)

On the surface, "Enigma" looks like a suite of classical and character dances, surrounding a touching story. Both the characters and the story are drawn from Elgar's life, but there are more enigmas in this ballet (see Mary Cargill's article on "Enigma" ).   One clue to the internal life of the ballet is that each variation begins with the dancer taking a walking step or two; the steps seamlessly slide into dance steps. When the dancing begins, despite the beautifully realistic costumes, we leave reality for a character study or a bit of village history or someone's state of mind or heart. To audiences unused to character ballets, the constant intrusion on the central story of eccentrics with bicycles and hearing trumpets may seem odd.The score dictates the action; it's a suite of variations depicting Elgar's friends, each given a coded name.  But there's more to it than that.  Elgar's world is imploding, his loving wife and good friend know exactly what's happening yet cannot help him, and the villagers keep stopping by, full of good will and good cheer. How like life to do that.

"Five Brahms Waltzes In The Manner of Isadora Duncan" (1976)

Ashton had seen Isadora Duncan dance when he was very young, and never forgot her.  "Brahms Waltzes," a solo for Lynn Seymour, was originally only one waltz; this is another gala number that Ashton later expanded. The dance brings to life dozens of sketches of Duncan ih motion, as well as what we know of her passion, and her sweet, heroic dancing.

"Marguerite & Armand " (1963)

To quote from another "Danceview" review, this one by me, writing in the Autumn 2001 issue of the Royal Ballet's visit to Washington that summer:

"Marguerite and Armand was the season’s curiosity. Made for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the white heat of their early partnership, it is often denigrated—merely a vehicle, certainly not one of Ashton’s greatest works, etc. I disagree that it’s a trivial ballet. It seems to be viewed, in these post-MacMillan times, as a mini-Manon, a truncated full-length ballet, and one that doesn’t tell the story in a linear fashion. But it wasn’t Ashton’s intention to try to retell a tale better told in novel form. As do many of Ashton’s narrative ballets, Marguerite and Armand expands the traditional structure while retaining an unerring sense of what ballet can and cannot do. There is no filler (the brief scene where Marguerite flirts with her past and potential lovers was once not as static as it is in the current revival). The story exists only in the mind of the dying Marguerite, and is told in flashbacks as she remembers the most significant moments of her life with Armand—their meeting, their happiness together in the country, the intrusion of Armand’s father into this happiness, and the final public humiliation. The ending—where the two are reconciled and she dies in his arms—may well be her fantasy; in the book, she dies before he can return home to her.

When Fonteyn and Nureyev danced it, there was a meeting, an explosion, of two people from different worlds, both as characters and as dancers. She, calmer, more mature (not really older, in the novel); he, living life in a rush, the personification of romantic youth. What I remember most about Nureyev (I saw only the final American performances of this ballet in 1975) is his power and his speed. He never entered a scene. He rushed on, as though trying to outrace fate."

The performances at the Festival will all be danced by one of today's reigning ballerinas, Sylvia Guillem (pictured above), with Italian star Massimo Murru.

"Monotones I and II" (1966)

It would be hard to better Arlene Croce's description of this ballet, printed in her collection "After Images."

"I remember the first trio (the piece is composed of two pas de trois, one set to the "Three Gnossiennes" and the other to the "Three Gymnopedies" of Satie) danced by Brian Shaw and Diana Vere and Georgina Parkinson in brick red costumes. The second trio was even better. Anthony Dowell and Vyvyan Lorrayne and Robert Mea wore samite white; their dance was a fascinating cross-weave of static and dynamic patterns, all set to the same slow, tick-tock cadence.. . .and also what a constancy of devotion to details of technique—all chaste and flowing arabeques, limpid contrapposto harmonies, impervious balances, and (especially ravishing to the deprived American eye) strict épaulement....

[She continues, writing of a Joffrey Ballet performance in 1974] "Sheathed in white unitards and wearing beanies that delicoiusly exposed the ears (these "saltimbanque" style costumes are of Ashton's own design), the dancers had the right look—long, lean and flexible—and the right kind of unpresumptuous authority. ...the dancing took on the calm transparency and sustained momentum Ashton meant it to have.  This section contains his finest composing; the continuity of his line is that of a master draftsman whose pen never leaves the paper." (pp .82-83)

"Ondine" pas de deux (1958)

"Ondine" is one of Ashton's four three-act ballets, and Ondine—a water sprite in love with a mortal—was one of Fonteyn's great roles. George Jackson once described Fonteyn's dancing as being "as cool and clear as water," and those qualities are captured in Ashton's choreography. The ballet has always been problematic: either the score (contemporary, austere in its day, commissioned from Hans Werner Henze) or the designs (spare evocations of Romanticism by Lila de Nobili) were disliked, or felt to be at odds with Ashton's choreography. Reading reviews of the first performances, it seems, too, as if many critics saw it as Ashton, once again, stuck in the past, trying to revive a Romantic ballet; they took the story literally and found nothing of interest in the trials and tribulations of a sea sprite. However, if one looks at the ballet as a metaphor, with Ondine being yet another manifestation of the ideal, the strange, the temptation to which one must not submit, the ballet is timeless.

"Les Patineurs" (1937)

A divertissement, a novelty in its day, when dancing for dancing's sake was thought to be a desert or an appetizer but never a main course, "Les Patineurs" used music from Meyerbeer's opera "Le Prophète" written for a skating scene. What strikes a viewer nearly 70 years later is how different the structure is from what we're used to seeing in Petipa and Balanchine's "divertissements," or abstract works. It rambles a bit, it's not as tight, or perhaps it's fairer to say (since we're not used to the rules of construction which Ashton follows in this work), it's not predictable. Like its spring cousin, "Les Rendezvous," "Les Patineurs" resembles Leo Staats' "Soir de Fête," which may well refer to an earlier French form of classicism. The ballet has a central pas de deux (originally danced by Fonteyn and Helpmann), and virtuoso roles for a man (Harold Turner, who, by all accounts, did justice to his surname) and two women (Mary Honer and Elizabeth Miller). Turner's part, The Blue Skater, was one of the cornerstone roles in the Royal Ballet's repertory for nearly 40 years; the lack of a Blue Boy in the late 1970s was one of the early signs that the company was changing direction. American Ballet Theatre danced the ballet for years, and revived it a few seasons ago (in an excellent staging by Georgina Parkinson) for its current generation of superturners. Joffrey Ballet, which will dance the ballet in New York, also has a long and honorable history dancing this ballet. ITS first Blue Boy, Mark Goldweber, heralded a new generation of Ashton dancers.

"Rhapsody" (1980)

"Rhapsody," set for a ballerino and ballerina (Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier, both speed demons), and six demisoloist couples to Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," was Ashton's last full-scale ballet.  It first danced at a gala to salute Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, on her 80th birthday.  "Rhapsody" is a plotless work that showcases the dancers' virtuosity. Alexander Bland wrote this about it in "The Royal Ballet, the First Fifty Years" [another Must Have book for those interested in Ashton and/or his company]:  "It was very much a party piece, contrasting strongly with the delicate lyricism of his "A Month in the Country" which preceded it. Full of fast, glittering passages, it centred round Baryshnikov, whose virtuosity was displayed in short bursts of bravura dancing. There was no perceptible theme, though one violin-playing gesture recalled that the music was Rachmaninoff's 'Rhapsody in a Theme of Paganini.'  Baryshnikov, an Apollo figure with gold-dusted hair, and Lesley Collier, who also performed some brilliant solos, were the central figures in a series of difficult evolutions with six other pairs. The whole ballet had a showy flavour—a daring and unusual quality for Ashton—accentuated by William Chappell's costumes" (p. 207) [The ballet has been subsequently redesigned]

"Scènes de ballet" (1948)

Like Balanchine's "Theme and Variations," Lifar's "Suite en blanc," and Ashton's "Symphonic Variations," "Scènes de ballet" (to Stravinsky's score) was one of several neoclassical works created in the years immediately following World War II, the beginning of classical ballet's great mid-20th century flowering. "Scènes de ballet" (for Fonteyn and Somes) is often described as Ashton's most perfect work, and indeed, it seems as if he did intend to create a perfect composition. Ashton's other "collaborator" in this endeavor was Euclid. In his "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets," David Vaughan wrote:  "Specifically, "Scènes de ballet" was the first time that he consciously paid homage to Petipa. A strange thing about its creation, he says, is that 'I, who at school could never get on with algebra or geometry, suddenly got fascinated with geometrical figures, and I used a lot of theorems as ground patterns for "Scènes de ballet". I also wanted to do a ballet that could be seen from any angle—anywhere could be front, so to speak. So I did these geometric figures that are not always facing front—if you saw "Scènes de ballet" from the wings you'd get a very different, but equally good picture.'" (pp. 221-222)

To explore the Euclidean aspects of "Scènes de ballet", read this review by Rachel Thomas from +Plus (a mathematics magazine).

"Thais" (1971)

"Thais" is another of Ashton's tributes to, and evocations of, a dancer, this time Anna Pavlova, who had bewitched him when he first saw her as a young teenager, and another gala piece (for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell) that has had an after life. To quote Vaughan again (once one starts, it's hard to stop): "This piece of music [the Meditation from Massenet's opera "Thais"] was presumably in [Pavlova's] repertory, though not, it seems, as one of her own solo divertissements. At all events, Ashton says he never saw her dance it, yet the pas de deux is one of the dances that unmistably evoke her spirit—there is even one gesture of Sibley's, when she coils her arm asbout her head, that recalls a specific one of Pavlova's, in the film of her 'Danse orientale.'"....

"The pas de deux was put together in two or three rehearsals, and Sibley says they didn't take it terribly seriously—the kiss at the end, she says, was 'my fault'. But they soon found it to be extraordinarily difficult: whether being literally thrown through the air, lifted straight up from a kneeling position, or balanced on Dowell's shoulders, Sibley had to be like a disembodied, weightless spirit. Just as many of Pavlova's numbers would have been pure kitsch danced by anyone else, only Ashton could have gotten away with 'Thais', because he believes not only in the balletic conventions it draws upon, but in the idea of romantic love that is its real subject." (pp. 378-379)

"The Two Pigeons" (1961)

One of Ashton's ballets from another time that was thought by some to be inappropriately old-fashioned when it was new, but, like "La Fille Mal Gardée", "The Two Pigeons" turned out to be a surprise hit. The ballet was created for what was then called "the touring company," and starred Lynn Seymour, at her most adorable, and Christopher Gable, a very promising young actor-dancer.

"The Two Pigeons" had begun life as a ballet at the Paris Opera (1886) with choreography by Louis Meranté to a score by André Méssager. It had long been out of the French repertory. Ashton was probably as interested in the score as in the ballet's theme, a stock one of 19th century ballets, of the bored boy who seeks adventure and excitement, but comes home, wiser for the experience, to the girl he truly loves. This is a two-act ballet, with a fidgety heroine, a fiery gypsy Other Woman, real pigeons, and choreography that incorporates images of birds and flight, references not only to the title, but to the metaphor of caged birds and freedom. Many consider the final pas de deux one of the most beautiful in any repertory.

Alexander Bland writes, in "The Royal Ballet, the First 50 Years": "Reshaping La Fontaine's fable, he transferred the action to the nineteenth century and gave it his own individual flavour, mingling comedy and sentiment. With a gentle score by Messager and pretty designs by Jacques Dupont, enhanced by the introduction of a pair of well-trained white doves, it seemed at first a lightweight, conventinally sentimental affair: but the sensitive and always musical choreography and Ashton's sure feeling for character gave it unexpected stamina. From the first it was an ideal vehicle for Seymour, using her seductive femininity and her delicate footwork rather than the dramatic power which MacMillan had exploited in 'The Invitation.' The role of the fickle young artist showed off the fresh vigour of Christopher Gable. This part had been originally conceived for the older and technically stronger Donald Britton, but an injury forced Britton to be replaced, necessitating an adjustment of the character which it is hard to regret." (pp. 225-226)

"Voices of Spring" (1977)

"Voices of Spring" was choreographed for a New Year's Eve performance of "Die Fledermaus" at Covent Garden (and which was also televised in America). Ashton contributed the surprise divertissements: an "Explosion Polka" for the guests (if I'm remembering correctly) and a virtuoso pas de deux, "Voices of Spring," for Merle Park and Wayne Eagling, both to music of Strauss.

"A Wedding Bouquet" (1937)

This ballet is so much of its time—a light, wonderfully silly comedy with a text by Gertrude Stein—with so many characters that it's a tribute to Ashton's craft that "A Wedding Bouquet" has proved so durable. But it's been often revived by the Royal Ballet, and has been given consistently fine performances by Joffrey Ballet (which will be performing the work at the Celebration.)  The photo is of the final scene, with the bride's dog taking the same pose as one of the sylphides at the end of Fokine's "Les Sylphides," which gives an idea of the ballet's irreverent tone. The Royal Ballet, which will dance the ballet during its 2004-2005 Ashton birthday season, describes it:  "With a score by his friend Lord Berners, its scenario of a provincial wedding combines delightfully Ashton's humour and his love of pure dance: an accident-prone bridegroom, a slightly drunk guest and a strict housekeeper ensure this bride's special day will not go according to plan!" The characters are deftly drawn, the situations are only superficially ridiculous, and the variations (for this is another of Ashton's classical ballets in street clothes) are gorgeous.


The Royal Ballet in "Cinderella." Photo: Dee Conway.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in "Dante Sonata". Photo:  Bill Cooper.

Dominic Antonucci as a Child of Darkness in the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of "Dante Sonata." Photo: Bill Cooper.

Sylvie Guillem in the Royal Ballet's production of "Marguerite and Armand." Photo: Bill Cooper.

The Joffrey Ballet in "Monotones I." Photo:  Herbert Migdoll.

Joffrey Ballet's Calvin Kitten in "Les Patineurs." Photo: Herbert Migdoll.

Birmingham Royal Ballet's Dorcas Walters and Robert Parker in "Two Pigeons". Photo: Eric Richmond.

Joffrey Ballet's (l to r) Maia Wilkins, Willy Shives and Emily Patterson in the finale of "A Wedding Bouquet." Photo: Herbert Migdoll.


Originally published:
Volume 2, Ashton Preview Section
July 5, 2004



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