writers on dancing


Lincoln Center Festival
Ashton Celebration
July 6-17, 2004

"Enigma Variations"

by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2004 by Mary Cargill
published July 4, 2004

"Enigma Variations;" music by Sir Edward Elgar; premiered in 1968 with Derek Rencher (Edward Elgar), Svetlana Beriosova (Lady Elgar), Anthony Dowell (Arthur Troyte Griffith), Desmond Doyle (A.J. Jaeger), and Antoinette Sibley (Dorabella).

Ashton choreographed "Enigma Variations" in 1968, but the idea actually originated in the early 1950’s, when Julia Trevelyan Oman, then a design student, submitted a series of designs for a ballet to be based on Elgar’s music. Nothing came of it at that time, but in the mid-1960’s Ashton, who had remembered the idea, decided to choreograph the Elgar work, and asked her to design it.

Oman’s designs are realistic and detailed, setting the ballet in Elgar’s Worcestershire home in 1898, the date the music was composed. The intricate details of that beautiful setting make a striking first impression, and the ballet is full of realistic props—a bicycle, a hammock, children’s toys, and a beautifully set table. But the ballet is not a straightforward dramatic story or a naturalistic depiction of events. The meticulous realism of the sets and costumes are just one layer, the surface, of a dense and complex work; the ballet comments on the music and its composition, and at the same time is the music itself.

Elgar’s "Enigma Variations" (My Friends Pictured Within) is a series of variations describing Elgar’s friends in musical terms. The ostensible story of Ashton’s ballet is an afternoon at Elgar’s house, when, as a rather discouraged and so-far unsuccessful artist in his 40’s, he is waiting to hear if Hans Richter will agree to conduct his most recent composition, "Enigma Variations." At the end of the ballet, a telegram arrives with the good news—that is the entire story.

The ballet, as opposed to the outward story, is Elgar’s musical pictures of his friends interpreted through dance. (David Vaughan, in his book on Ashton’s ballets, quotes Ashton as saying that Elgar’s daughter said, after seeing the ballet, “I don’t understand how you did it—they were all exactly like that…And I never liked any of them, except Troyte.”) Ashton did a great deal of research on Elgar and his circle, but the choreography is allusive and abstract, conveying ideas, thought, and feelings, rather than events. It is a ballet of mood and character, set off by and to some extent playing against the realism surrounding it.

The relationship between Elgar and his wife is at the heart of the work, and the Nimrod variation, when Elgar, his wife, and his friend Jaeger walk in the woods is one of the richest depictions of sympathy and understanding and friendship in dance (or in any other field). Its powerful simplicity is as profound and moving as the more overtly dramatic ending of Balanchine’s "Robert Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze," another ballet about a misunderstood artist by a choreographer near the end of his career. But where the layers of Balanchine’s great work are clear (character shoes changing into point shoes), Ashton sets his layers in a completely realistic setting, having his characters almost imperceptibly weave in and out of the everyday story and into their private natures.

Enigma Variations is a picture of Elgar’s friends, but it was also a picture of Ashton’s Royal Ballet in 1968, and like so many profoundly subtle works, its success depends very much on casting. Derek Rencher was a dignified and distinguished Elgar, but the soul of the ballet was Svetlana Beriosova’s Lady Elgar. Beriosova’s dark eyes had untold sympathy and understanding, and her elegant line had a unique dignity.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet first danced "Enigma Variations" in the mid-90’s, when it was set on them by the late Michael Somes, the great Ashton guardian. Sir Peter Wright, then the director of the company, and several members of the cast, talked about the ballet at the 1995 Ashton Symposium, discussing the complexities of casting, characterization, and style. They then performed a concert version (costumes, but no sets), and it was clear that the ballet could survive its original cast. The care, dedication, understanding, and sympathy were all there; the Birmingham company brought that great work to life.

Photo: Kevin O'Hare, former Birmingham Royal Dancer, in the famous "Troyte" solo from "Enigma Variations." Photo: Bill Cooper.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Ashton Preview Section
July 4, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mary Cargill


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