writers on dancing


Lincoln Center Festival
Ashton Celebration

My Friends Pictured Within

"Enigma Variations" and "The Two Pigeons"
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY, USA
July 9, 2004

by Nancy Dalva

copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva
published July 11, 2004

What a wonderful ballet "Enigma Variations" is—there's really nothing more one could ask of a work of art than this. It is rich on every level, and has an unusual appeal for a ballet: Sir Frederick Ashton's sublime narrative work is about grown-ups in a grown-up world. No one is enchanted, though someone may be imaginary. No one is an animal, though someone portrays a dog while telling a story about one. No one has magic powers. Never for a second do you have to suspend your disbelief. In this "Enigma Variations" is a triumph of naturalism, but also of neo-classicism—the choreography is all ballet, though tempered with everyday human gesture, and hence humanized. We have been lucky to have the Birmingham Royal Ballet here to perform it, and to perform it in a way more satisfactory, as an immediate experience, than I remember a previous Royal Ballet performance here to have been. Although there could have been more variety in the tempi among the variations–the fast faster, the slow perhaps slower—the ballet was in every way acceptable, which is saying a very great deal. One demands the most when a beloved work is returned to one's attention, calling up everything one felt upon first seeing it, and everything one has learned to feel since. My only complaint is that I would like to see it again, and it is over.

The key to "Enigma," is the decor. Indeed, the real muse of this ballet is the designer, Julia Trevelyan Oman. She first proposed the work in the 1950s, as the Ashton historian David Vaughan tells us in "Frederick Ashton and his Ballets" (Knopf, 1977), but Ashton did not take her up on the idea until 1966. Why not? "For one thing, " Vaughan tells us, "Elgar's music did not appeal to him." From the evidence of the ballet, Ashton later fell deeply under the music's spell (or he merely did such a fantastically good piece of work that you think he did), as have any number of other people who have sought to explicate the enigma—or enigmas—of the title, which has to do with a theme—or themes—said to be encoded in the ballet, perhaps in counterpoint. (See an essay by Gordon Lee, among other sites devoted to breaking the code.)

Without going into it in any great detail, I will just say that a leading contender among code theorists for the source of embedded theme is "Rule Britannia" though there is one rump group favoring Mozart . At any rate the ballet itself is very British, though there is a certain moment at the end, when Sir Edward kneels to his wife, that recalls the end of "The Marriage of Figaro," when the Count apologizes to his countess. (Ashton is a genius of apology, as one saw particularly on this bill–and coo also comprising "The Two Pigeons," which ends in remorse and forgiveness.)

It was Ashton's great achievement not to explain the enigma, but to create the atmosphere of enigma though characterization, directly derived from the sound-portraits of his intimates that make up Elgar's theme and variations, to whom he referred as "my friends pictured within." (See period photographs of the actual persons portrayed.) The Ashton enigma is this: we are not sure of the exact nature of Elgar's relationship to the women in the ballet who are not his wife, and indeed—in the case of a muse figure who bourées in from the garden cloaked in mist—whether one woman is conjured by his imagination. She is outside the house—the domain of Lady Elgar—but inside. She is inside Elgar's head. His relationship with his publisher Jaegar is also subject to interpretation, though to intuit anything romantic would be more Freudian than the ballet itself. Indeed, if you want to go that far, there is in fact a famous trio that can be interpreted though Freudian triangulation as Elgar experiencing his wife, who was some eight years his senior, as his mother, and his publisher as his father.

Interior, exterior. The set the designer eventually devised is exactly that. The frontispiece is a copse of trees though which you glimpse, on the left, a hammock, with a fully dressed table set next to it, compete with lace over-cloth. In the center, a stone arch marks the entry to the garden, with woods beyond. On the right, a spindle-banistered flight of stairs, with an intermediate landing. Beneath the stairs, another arch, neoclassical, but hung with a patterned curtain on a rod. Before that there is a table and chairs, flanked by a wall with a fire place featuring a rather elaborate yet reticent supermantel, inset with what appear to be enamel plaques. Copse, table, country house, fireplace, table, chairs. The entire affair could house "The Three Sisters," "The Cherry Orchard," or "Uncle Vanya"—the last of which Chekov wrote in 1897, the year before Elgar wrote the Enigma Variations.

No wonder, then, that viewers find correspondences between the ballet and the plays. Chekov and Elgar were contemporaries, though of course Ashton himself was looking back to the Worcestershire of the period. (See Elgar's boyhood home, to which he kept a close attachment; more pictures.) Because the women's skirts have been shortened from the correct period length—most merely to the ankle—to make dancing possible, the dresses for the ballet appear Edwardian, but Victoria was still queen when Elgar wrote his programatic score, to which the choreographer cleaves with complete fidelity. The Elgars of the ballet are eminently Victorian.

Ashton, on the other hand, was an Edwardian. Born in 1904, he remembered seeing King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra "riding in the royal" coach (Vaughan, p. 1) on a visit to London, but his was not an English boyhood. Born in Guyaquil, Ecuador, he spend his childhood in Lima, Peru, a Spanish colonial city with a coastal desert climate. In other words, Ashton was an ex-pat.

This, I think, is the ultimate basis for the dichotomy of exterior and interior in the "Enigma." Ashton framed it through the lens of time. He would have known, for instance, what great sorrow Elgar would later experience at the outbreak of World War I; a sorrow-to-come that ineluctably colors the Elgar character's duet–part of the "Nimrod" trio—with A.J. Jaegar, his German publisher. But Ashton also framed the work though the lens of the outsider. Considered the most English of choreographers, he was portraying the most English of composers, but with all the clarity, and careful selection of syntax, of the foreign-born and raised.

The "Nimrod " begins with the publisher adjusting his glasses—on July 9, at the Met, Pierpaolo Ghirotto danced the part, looking much like the originator, Desmond Doyle, as he is seen on a film from 1969—then stepping forward in pensive ronde de jambes, as if tracing a thought. It's one of the rare moments in the ballet when a character steps from the back of the stage to the front, and the variation will end with Jaegar and the Elgars—Joseph Cipolla and Silvia Jimenez—rushing forward towards us, only to turn and walk quietly, and with the utmost poetry, back to the garden arch. This phrase, too, is unusual, for most often in this ballet one is aware of the characters moving backwards by backing up, not by turning their backs on us. Nonetheless, even in the dramatic moments of frontal emphasis, here and elsewhere, there is absolutely no breaking of the fourth wall in "Enigma." Indeed I could argue, and I think I will argue, that there ought not to be any breaking of that wall in any of the Ashton I've seen this first week of the Ashton Festival, though people seem to do it, in a mistaken effort at charm, which if course is by nature effortless, and imbued in the steps.

Because much of the "Enigma" choreography is oblique, it is by its nature enigmatic. Because of the fabled Ashton use of the upper torso, characters are on a diagonal even when they do move forward. The feet move forward, the head inclines towards one side, or the other. And, just so, the movement, often, inclines first to one side, then to the other, in repeating motifs, in doubling, in inversion, in repetition. These devices allow for a visual ease in the viewing experience—you have time to absorb the phrasing, and to breathe it in along with the music. The effect of one is immersion and absorption—you are drawn into the ballet's world.

And yet, as Ashton was distant from Elgar, so are we from Ashton. Just as Ashton could see the shape of Elgar's life whole, we can see the shape of Ashton's life whole. Thus if, in viewing the" Nimrod," you are tempted to substitute Ashton for Jaegar and see the choreographer in duet with the composer, you will not have gone too far astray. You will merely be seeing the work from the present. And if you should see, in the person of Lady Elgar, the ballet itself—partnered by both Sir Edward and Sir Fred—lifted aloft by each in turn, and, in the end, gently inclining her fine head towards the choreographer to make her elegiac exit, that will be just another solution, among the many, of the enigma.

"The Enigma Variations" was followed, last Friday, by "The Two Pigeons," a love story involving a faithless artist boyfriend who abandons his soul mate, of whom he has tired, to try his luck with the girlfriend from hell—namely, a gypsy hot tamale with an ominous boyfriend who lurks in the background, only to come forward in Act II as a kind of Benno, the third wheel in a pas de trois. In the end, the prodigal boyfriend, having been spurned by the hot number—Molly Smolen reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck in "Ball of Fire," but without the heart—and having been roughed up by her retinue, returns to his rooftop garret where his true love awaits. The key conceit here is avian; there are two actual pigeons—trained birds—that symbolize the lovers, who have, especially the girl, pigeon movement motifs. As she is dressed in white and the gypsy is dressed in black, I whiled away my over-long time in the gypsy encampment (the gypsies are to gypsies as the pirates of Penzance are to pirates) thinking about how it was possible to analyze the ballet as a version of "Swan Lake." White swan, black swan. White pigeon, dark gypsy. This in turn reminded me of how Balanchine subsumes the classics in his repertory, so I had an interesting time. To support my "Swan Lake" premise, I offer you the evidence of the first act, when the Young Girl, who was danced by Nao Sakuma, is joined by a flock of girlfriends, and they all do pigeon dances—the Pigeon Queen and her flock; and I offer you as another swan reference the evidence of the ending, when the girl is folded on the floor in repose, her fluttering wings stilled, her torso resting on her extended legs, too Pavlova for words. This is how The Young Man, danced by the "Shropshire Lad"-ish Andy Parker, finds her, when he is inspired to return by one of the actual pigeons, who lights on his hand—or ought to, according to the Ashton expert Alastair Macaulay, though at this performance the bird had to be sought in the wings. The ending is very picturesque, with the dancers framed in the oval back of a Victorian chair frame, intertwined in a way that recalls "Fille Mal Gardée," that ultimate Ashton charmer. Just before the curtain, a second pigeon flies in to perch with the first over the heads of the lovers.

I found some details of the performance too audience oriented, but having never seen the ballet before, I was merely intuiting this. I wanted to gaze into the world of the ballet, and I didn't want it to be gazing back, or worse, soliciting my attention. Further, a ballet with a gypsy caravan is never going to be my favorite thing, but I feel I should mention that after I had learned more about the work—in specific, after Vaughan and Macaulay had explicated some of the reasons they love it, in a Saturday afternoon symposium presented in association with The New York Library for the Performing—I found I enjoyed it more myself at a second viewing. They had been eloquent about the underpinnings—the craft, the structure—and so I found myself reconciled to the adorableness of it all, and almost willing to remember, for all that I've enjoyed forgetting, what it is like to be young, in love, and betrayed. Ashton's was a heart that did not grow old.

Photos, both by Stephanie Berger, taken July 7, 2004.:
First:  Joseph Cipolla and Silvia Jimez of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in "Enigma Variations."  Performance shot by Stephanie Berger.
Second:  "The Two Pigeons."

Originally published:
July 11, 2004
Volume 2, Ashton Section
Copyright ©2004 by Nancy Dalva


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