The Ashton Ballerina
Scènes de Ballet
If, in this entire sumptuous festival for Frederick Ashton, you could only see one number, and that was the performance by Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle of the “Awakening” pas de deux from the Royal Ballet’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” you would have experienced, full strength, in five minutes, almost everything that classical ballet at its most universally communicative has to offer. I’m speaking about something larger than the choreography per se. The choreography for this pas de deux, set to the violin obliggato section of “Beauty” that is so familiar to New York audiences from “The Nutcracker” of George Balanchine (who inserted it into the scene where Marie’s mother finds her asleep on the sofa and tenderly covers her with a shawl), isn’t Ashton’s greatest, in the sense of complexity of its patterns or nuances of its storytelling. However, the way it tracks the Tchaikovsky melody—like a youngster running with a kite that goes from sailing low, to sailing higher, then sailing high overhead—offers a simplicity of purpose and a visceral excitement that give the dancers a wide-open opportunity to contribute something of themselves to the effect of spiraling anticipation.
Ashton is beloved by dancers and audiences for many things, but this is perhaps the heart of their affection: that he provides opportunities for dancers to give the best of themselves as classical artists: strength, speed, stamina, finesse, elongated physical proportions, amplitude in the movements of the back and carriage of the arms, impeccable turn-out of the legs and precision in the execution and phrasing of steps, and, sustaining all of this, the imaginative possibility that the dance as an excerpt from a grand story, which they imply without actually telling. In the case of the “Awakening” pas de deux, of course, the dance is certainly such an excerpt. When Bolle’s large, deferential, fully classical Prince takes center stage for a solo that includes different kinds of revolutions and grands tours that change orientation slightly, one can look at it gladly as just a virtuoso variation, although, if one cares to see it as a monologue in pure dance of how the Prince had to travel halfway across the earth to find Aurora, it works that way, too. Bussell is a protégée of Kenneth MacMillan’s, a more literal choreographer than Ashton and one with a dramatically different idea of what contemporary ballet can and should do. Yet her account of the title role in Ashton’s “Cinderella,” when the Royal was last at the Met, rivals memories of Fonteyn and Sibley in the part: she is one of those dancers who seems to give a performance everything she has, pouring her interior into her action; regardless of her work for MacMillan, who sees psychic complexity as a universal given, there is no suggestion in Bussell’s Ashton (or Petipa) heroines of any secret dark sides. What she presents directly is what they are. For this pas de deux, which takes place just following the moment that Prince Désiré has discovered the sleeping Aurora and, with a kiss, awakened her from her 100 years of slumber, Bussell draws one into Aurora’s evolving consciousness as a character through whole-hearted and full-bodied commitment to the particulars of the way Ashton has drawn that evolution in dance terms. We saw a crystallizing image of this in one of the charming “halfway-there” passages early on: the Prince carefully, with his fingertips, revolves Aurora in place as she poses in an arabesque allongée—that is, a slanting arabesque, tipping the ballerina’s body halfway between the fundamental, upright kind and the full plunge of an arabesque penchée—while the foot of her supporting leg is raised to high demi-point, that is, halfway between the full sole of the basic walking steps with which the pas de deux begins and the full point she assumes in the climactic passages of partnering (and leaping). This moment, which accents intermediate poses, represents how Ashton shaped the “ing” of the Awakening. Bussell’s unassailable arabesque, held from a place deep in her lower back; the childlike dignity of her large, beautiful head; and the voluptuous line of the arched foot that served as her base of support coalesced into a ballerina picture that set a standard for the entire evening—indeed, for ballerinas who perform year-round in Lincoln Center. She was not attempting to please the audience directly: no one in The Royal Ballet these days sets out to do that, if, in fact, they ever did. She was pleasing the dance and the music, and that’s what drove the audience wild.
Tuesday was, all round, a ballerina evening. The programming for this entire Royal Ballet week, in fact, comprises Ashton works in which the ballerina is paramount, in contradistinction to last week’s programming for the other participating festival companies, which focused on works with an ensemble sensibility, where, in most cases, the men were slightly more emphasized. (Even the Birmingham Royal’s production of the solo “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” would fit here, since one of Isadora’s famous sayings was that she never danced a solo in her life—that she always danced the chorus, even though she may have been the only dancer on stage at the time.) The “Awakening” pas de deux was one of four pas de deux in the middle, “Divertissements” section, of the evening, and all of them featured ballerina performances of high caliber by, in addition to Bussell, Tamara Rojo (“Ondine,” with Iñaki Urlezaga), Leanne Benjamin (“Thaïs,” with Thiago Soares), and Alina Cojocaru (“Voices of Spring,” with Johan Kobborg)—four brunettes with a common, exacting approach to the classical steps and delicious differences of temperament, timing, and physique. They were like four varieties of tea roses, and their princes—all handsome, physically prepossessing, chivalric virtuosos—cared for them as if the world depended on them thriving.
At the top of the evening—and the first ballet to be presented by the Royal at the festival—we were given Ashton’s own favorite of his entire career, “Scènes de Ballet,” from 1947, a ballet for four corps men, 12 corps ladies, and a principal couple, to the Stravinsky score that the choreographer first heard on the radio while taking a bath and with the early set by the then-20 year-old French enfant terrible André Beaurepaire, who considered himself an equal to Picasso and whose diluted and derivative Surrealist designs, which place the ballet in a kind of nighttime art-historical picnic ground, somewhere between a Braque temple and a di Chirico bridge, give the work a madly cute veneer of opacity that, for some observers, is quite wrong for the elegant, complex, frostily formal yet also haunting choreography. The designer’s insensitive and self-aggrandizing manner also drove Ashton to distraction. Why he kept the set for decades is something of a mystery. (David Vaughan, for instance, suggests replacing the set altogether in “Frederick Ashton and His Ballets” and notes there that the work has sometimes been performed without any set.) The costumes—tutus for the women, tunics and tights for the men, all appliquéd with geometric figures, in a palette including black, lavender, and, for the ballerina, dandelion yellow—were apparently more or less Ashton’s own designs, although credited to Beaurepaire.
“Scènes de Ballet” is probably the closest to a storyless ballet by Balanchine that Ashton ever made. (Lincoln Kirstein wanted to acquire it for Ballet Society, but with the Royal’s now-legendary 1949 New York tour in the planning, Ashton wouldn’t give permission.) And the closest to a dance by Merce Cunningham as well. Its floor patterns, entrances, and exits were cognates to Euclidean theorems that Ashton had the dancers literally embody (he seems to have become fascinated with Euclid after reading the notebooks of Leonardo), and the orientation of many ensemble passages is swiveled, so that the “front” the dancers face is a wing or the back wall: it was meant to be interesting when viewed from any angle in the round. (This was, actually, decades before Cunningham’s Events, which are so oriented.) Ashton, who didn’t read music, strove mightily to analyze the Stravinsky score—based on his listening to it, apparently: i.e., based on its sound—and his translation of the musical punctuation into living bodies resulted in idiosyncratic yet absorbing witticisms, such as the women’s bobbing head motions that we associate with “Yes,” abstracted and detached from context, so that they function as musical elements and as elements in the solution of geometric theorems. “We would get into terrible tangles [in rehearsal], but when it finally came out I used to say, QED!,” Vaughan quotes Ashton as saying; and the ballet does have that quality of puzzle pieces snapping into place; the final gestures, executed on top of Stravinsky’s chords, have the triumph of a Eureka! moment. Both Vaughan and Kavanagh suggest that, at points, Ashton quarreled with Stravinsky’s intentions for the staging of the music; he approached the score with considerable independence of mind. As the musicologist and dance historian Stephanie Jordan—who gave an encyclopedic and awesomely precise public lecture on Ashton’s musicality at Lincoln Center on Monday—noted, Ashton also used counts in devising “Scènes,” which was most unusual for him. He intended it to be a tribute to Petipa (Jordan mentioned allusions in the score and the choreography to moments from the 19th-century repertory of classical ballets), and he spoke of working in it toward an ideal of “a cold, distant, uncompromising beauty which says, ‘I am here, beautiful, but will make no effort to charm you.’”
I’ve seen this ballet performed by the Royal several times over the past two decades; this was the surest performance of it in my experience: strong, cultivated, with excellent dancing from many of the men as well as the women and a bright, yet also breathing performance by Miyako Yoshida in the Margot Fonteyn role as the ballerina in yellow. Her partner, Ivan Putrov, looked a little suppressed, yet I wouldn’t fault him: suppression of lyrical ecstasy in service of a rigorously synthesizing intellect seems to be part of what the ballet is about. Even 56 years later, it’s a cutting-edge challenge to concentrate on this monument to cold and distant beauty in the theater. Perhaps, though, the chill wouldn’t be quite so Antarctic if the tempos were a little faster? The running time of the Royal’s current production is 22 minutes, yet Vaughan cites a running time of 17 minutes and Kavanagh of 18.
The last ballerina work of the evening was “Marguerite and Armand,” a kind of vestpocket “Lady of the Camellias,” which Ashton devised for Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and which, it is said, he never wanted to be performed by anyone but them.
That legend hasn’t stopped the Royal from reviving it for Sylvie Guillem, in the Fonteyn role. It is impossible for me to describe adequately how terrible she looks in it, striking poses for the sake of posturing, standing around for long stretches with nothing to do, as if she were waiting for a bus. Her Armand, Massimo Murru, looks wonderful, but he’s way, way out of his depth as a Romantic hero in a coat of Werther blue, and his weeping over his Marguerite’s lifeless body has no emotional effect at all, other than sheer gratitude that the curtain is now falling. Even the appearance of Anthony Dowell as Armand’s cold and distant father couldn’t get the old fires going. Thanks to the willfulness of Guillem in insisting on this as a vehicle for herself, we can see that, absent Fonteyn and Nureyev, “Marguerite and Armand” is stone cold dead.