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Lincoln Center Festival
Ashton Celebration

Scenes and Variations:
Ashton’s Chic Beauty

Scènes de Ballet/Divertissments/Marguerite and Armand
The Royal Ballet (Ashton Celebration, Lincoln Center Festival)
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
July 15, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published July 17, 2004

“In an epoch as somber as ours, luxury must be defended inch by inch.” Those words are Christian Dior’s, the creator of 1947’s “New Look” that brought rich fabrics and lowered hemlines back to a world renewing itself in peace. With the end of World War II, Sadler’s Wells Ballet moved to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, reopening it in 1946 with their epochal "Sleeping Beauty." Ashton’s hymn to spring and peace, "Symphonic Variations," came a few months later. By 1948 he too could defend luxury and chic with his New Look in ballet. And like Dior, he built solidly on the Old Look.

A renewed classicism was developing on both sides of the Atlantic. Balanchine was working on a pared-down interpretation that emphasized its structure; 1946’s "Symphonie Concertante" was made to drill his own young women in Ballet Society in the precepts of his style. His guest commissions of 1947 were extensions of the same idea made on companies with greater means: "Theme and Variations" for Ballet Theatre and "Le Palais de Cristal" for Paris Opera Ballet.

"Scènes de Ballet" and "Theme and Variations" flow from the same source, Marius Petipa and "The Sleeping Beauty." Balanchine responded to an explicit commission from Ballet Theatre to make something to be danced in place of divertissements from "The Sleeping Beauty." Balanchine created a series of classical dances including variations and pas de deux that culminated in a grand polonaise for the entire cast. The link back to "Beauty" was the structure of the divertissement and the Tchaikovsky score. Balanchine shows us perfect mastery of symmetry in "Theme" and the other works of the period; the rules have never looked so crystalline or beautiful.

Ashton's homage to "Beauty" followed the road less traveled; he gives us daring asymmetry that resolves itself just as you notice it. He heard the Stravinsky music on the radio, “was fascinated by the rhythm of it,” identified it and procured a recording after a good deal of effort. The score was created in 1944 for a Broadway review and choreographed by Anton Dolin for himself and Alicia Markova. Ashton wasn’t new to Stravinsky; he had choreographed "Baiser de la Fée" in 1935 and revered Nijinska’s "Les Noces." The work comes from Stravinsky’s neoclassical period and makes comparisons to Balanchine inevitable. The central pas de deux, scored for trumpet, makes me think wryly of Hershey Kay’s later (and lesser but still beloved) orchestration for "Stars and Stripes". British listeners familiar with a different repertory might hear similar dark orchestral colorings in Henze’s score for "Ondine".

The score forced Ashton to depart from his usual method of crafting a ballet. From David Vaughan’s "Frederick Ashton and his Ballets:" “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 . . .if you saw 'Scènes de Ballet' from the wings you’d get a very different, but equally good picture.” The linear world of "The Sleeping Beauty" slowly rotates before our eyes.

Ashton may have been choreographing by looking at books on Euclid but it seems he was also looking at Degas. For all the geometry his eye is painterly. He makes arrangements of dancers with a studied and sly casualness, such as the heroic beginning with the leading man alone and still in the center and the other four men clasped in pairs like sculptures. Later on, he assembles the women at the side, some in line but others facing as if in conversation.

The designer, André Beaurepaire, was said to have exhausted Ashton with his obstinacy, but his sets and costumes date the ballet in a marvelous way; as sure as the New Look might. The original production contained two sets; only the first is now used, a sort of viaduct that Ashton uses to move his women through the arches in one of his symmetrical asymmetries. I’d be sad if it were missing. The costumes, especially the men’s short sleeves, have a utilitarian elegance that typifies the era.

Ashton’s musicality to Stravinsky isn’t what ears trained by Balanchine expect. Balanchine pins his ballet to the metric structure of the score. We know Ashton worked to counts in this ballet as well, a major departure for him, but I’d still argue that his musicality is his native one: melodic. You can almost hear him singing the first few notes to the steps as the first four women enter.

The references to "The Sleeping Beauty" are sly; the alterations provide the interest. As the couple meets for their pas de deux, the female corps lines up behind them and ticks forward in clockwork piqués as the fairies do in the prologue of the earlier ballet. The pas de deux continues with the four men lining up to do supported pirouettes with the ballerina, an echo of both the fairies and their cavaliers in the prologue and the Rose Adagio. Ashton ups the ante by having one man start the pirouette as another comes in to finish it. Towards the end, we get another echo of the prologue when the four men take a partner and come forward to do a supported pirouette.

Ashton’s relation to the corps de ballet of four men and twelve women is intriguingly personal. He acknowledges the necessity of anonymity and uniformity especially in the costuming, but also in the choreography that deploys them consistently in groups. But then suddenly a single dancer or a pair will break free to turn in the center or prance across the floor.

The relations between "Theme" and "Scènes" are genealogical, as the similarities might be for brothers who both knew their father but not each other. Both have a variation for the male lead that challenges him with a treacherous series of double tours. But Balanchine is Balanchine and Ashton is Ashton; Balanchine’s challenge is in the continuity of the movement, Ashton’s is in the stillness required at the close of each tour. If the variation we see today for Desiré in "Beauty" goes as far back as Lopukhov or Diaghilev, the double tours to entrechat there might be the inspiration. Ashton does occasionally use the gridded corps patterns also in "Theme." He lines the corps up in a square, four lines of four. But Euclid intervenes; they’re facing to the diagonal with their backs to us and the men are sprinkled through the women in a logical irregularity. Towards the end, Ashton does lines the women and the men up to face us and we respond half automatically, “Finale!” But it isn’t—quite. And then you notice the men are in a line of four and the women in threes. Ashton is constantly trying to fool our eyes into seeing the irregular as regular.

The same cast performed Thursday evening as did Tuesday, and what they gained on the second performance was the final security that was missing from the first, which looked like they were still shaking off all their traveling. Ivan Putrov was elegant and confident but not remote; Miyako Yoshida skimmed through her footwork and the lovely braced and heroic arabesques that are echoed in "Cinderella". The company aimed to put its best foot forward. The corps de ballet is not the corps de ballet—it’s filled with soloists and first soloists—but the ballet needs that sort of security, especially for the four men, who form a kind of metasoloist.

Balanchine often compared himself to a chef or a gardener. Perhaps Ashton is more of a couturier, and with that, we return to Christian Dior. "In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable.” Balanchine made the impersonal deeply human; Ashton has taken the classical and made it personal. This is a magnificent ballet.

As it did Tuesday and Wednesday, the program continued with a series of divertissements. Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle reprised their performance in the "Awakening pas de deux." One can understand why it stylistically never integrated into "The Sleeping Beauty" but I also understand dramatically why Ashton felt the need. There are times in watching current productions I’ve been jarred by the lack of transition from Aurora climbing out of her bed to immediately agreeing to marry Desiré. Bussell had a better performance on Tuesday. Though still lovely, her lines were not nearly as pure on Thursday, so much so that at first I thought I was seeing a different dancer. She still had beautiful breathy moments when Bolle gently lifted her. I’m very glad to see Bolle here, my single viewing of him as Solor in London last October was not a good one; he looked far better here (and though we didn’t see him at this performance, the same with Johan Kobborg, who looks like a different dancer here than he did at the Bournonville Festival in his native Denmark.)

The climactic liebestod of "Ondine" does not excerpt well no matter how well Tamara Rojo and Iñaki Urlezaga do it. If nothing else, it does make me want to see the whole ballet again to place it all in context. It’s certainly not an amuse-bouche, though. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares danced the pas de deux from "Birthday Offering". Nuñez rose rapidly through the ranks much like Alina Cojocaru, but this is all we’ve seen her in to this point. She’s lovely, but her balances seemed shaky and unfortunately they happen to be the point of the pas. I’ve seen Viascheslav Samodurov look better than he did in the "Voices of Spring" pas de deux with Mara Galeazzi. All the torch lifts with the woman sitting high overhead take brute force for him to get through and make him look coarse. He also doesn’t look like he’s attempting to accommodate the style; he danced it in standard Russian virtuoso dialect. Galeazzi has lovely rose petal technique as she scatters them across the stage (Leanne Benjamin ran out early on the night before), but she didn’t have the skimming quality or the dewiness of Cojocaru in the same part.

The evening concluded with Sylvie Guillem and Massimo Murru in "Marguerite and Armand." Guillem’s approach to the role is very full-blooded, but I’d argue that she has earned the right to be miscast. I find her honest, but not vulnerable. She’s a proud courtesan, maybe too proud. She overpowers Anthony Dowell as the father and his reading is confusing. His body language and the way he touches her on their meeting seems to suggests that he may have sampled the merchandise as well as the son. Guillem and Murru find their groove in the second party scene (‘The Insult”) by whipping up the emotions to a heady froth that persists through the death scene, and at each of the performances the hysteria got amplified. Unfortunately, Murru isn’t on the same level as Guillem and when he abandons himself completely to the moment his technique starts to fray. I respect the effort, and the real sobbing and tears, but is this ballet really only about blood and guts?

Originally published:
July 17, 2004
Volume 2, Ashton Section
Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel


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