Looking at Ashton
Sir Frederick Ashton’s artistic achievements were the foundation stones that established and developed ballet as a major cultural institution in Britain during the 20th Century. And like his American contemporary George Balanchine, Ashton’s balletic legacy continues to reach well beyond his home nation, as many of his creations are performed annually by international companies, in front of audiences entranced by the quintessentially British feel of his ballets.
It is very easy to look back at a choreographer’s lifetime of creations and categorize their works into a simple clichéd pigeonhole. As such it would be more than fair to say, as we cast a passing eye over Ashton’s works, that his genius was as a consummate storyteller.
Ashton had a natural gift for creating well-defined characters to populate his carefully and succinctly developed story lines. This innate theatricality played perfectly to a nation brought up on centuries of British Theater, and in this way Ashton’s works, just like those of Balanchine’s, have a unique flavor to them that is not only instantly recognizable but also speaks volumes about national artistic identity.
However, in the same way that it would be unfair to claim that Balanchine created only abstract works, Ashton’s legacy goes far deeper than his narrative works. Fortunately a selection of these will be presented during the Lincoln Center Festival; amongst them the abstract, almost lunar-like Monotones, the extravagantly virtuosic Rhapsody (originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier) and one of Ashton’s very early works, the evocative and haunting Dante Sonata.
In today’s mixed repertory programs contemporary dance works sit comfortably alongside classical ballets of the 20th Century. As audiences we have become accustomed to seeing an increasingly athletic approach to dance and as such have witnessed dancers’ physical abilities being stretched beyond previous expectations. However, do not for one moment underestimate the physical demands that the complex languages Ashton and Balanchine created placed on their dancers. Demands that today’s generation of ballet dancers still find an exciting and rewarding challenge to meet.
While Balanchine was adding new dimensions to ballet by introducing heightened limb extensions and off-centered weight placement, Ashton developed a language that combined intricate footwork with extensive upper body movement. At one level Ashton’s footwork could be termed steps, but combined with his use of expansive épaulement (the French term for the rotational use of shoulders), he created a fascinating physical fusion. Ashton's balletic language is multifaceted, both for audiences to watch and for the dancers to perform. On top of the physical and aesthetic demands Ashton places on his dancers they then have to present performances of artistic perfection. The addition of so much upper-body movement to such purely classical steps heightens the degree of difficulty while ensuring there is no place to hide any errors.
Even taking into account his use of upper-body movement, Ashton’s choreography is often very subtle. This ability for understatement enabled him to develop as a master of nuance. Building characters and relationships not only in the subtlest moments of non-dance but equally through the instinctively appropriate choices of aesthetic lines, positions and movements he created for his dancers, across solos, pas de deux and larger group dances.
Another strength that Ashton brought to all of his ballets was his extraordinary musicality. However complex or simple his choreography, it always dovetails perfectly with the orchestral score. Not just in terms of the rhythm and melody, but completely in harmony with the composer’s musical atmosphere, tone, color and dynamic.
In all of the Ashton works to be presented as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, for me the one that most perfectly demonstrates all of these aspects of Ashton’s genius would be his full-length Cinderella. In particular look carefully at the solos he created for the Fairy Godmother and Four Seasons during the second half of Act I. While Ashton provides a perfect physical translation of Prokofiev’s evocation of the Seasons, look at the detail of the footwork, particularly noticeable in Spring and Autumn, and especially the extraordinary degree of upper body movement evident across all five solos and the coda.
And for pure romance it will be difficult to see a more luscious and yet purely classical pas de deux than the one Ashton created for Cinderella and The Prince in the Act II ballroom scene. Not only does it show Ashton’s extraordinary musicality and his expertise in creating the most perfectly appropriate atmosphere. It also demonstrates his ability to fashion a unique stylistic voice, especially for Cinderella, that remains true from her technically demanding ballroom solo right through to the end of the magical pas de deux.
Editor's note: Bruce Sansom is a former principal dancer, and noted Ashton interpreter, of The Royal Ballet and one of the first Vilar Institute Fellows. He's served as Director of Development for Rambert Dance Company, and is currently artistic director and presenter of An Evening of British Ballet, a touring company of ten Royal Ballet dancers led by Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, whose program includes Sir Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations and Voices of Spring Pas de Deux, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Pas de Deux from Concerto, the Pas de Trois from David Bintley’s Dance House, Christopher Wheeldon’s Pas de Deux from Tryst, Ashley Page’s Larina Waltz, the Pas de Deux from Wayne McGregor’s Qualia and William Tuckett’s Puirt-a-Beul.