writers on dancing

Letter from New York

Frederick Ashton: The Films

As a coda to the Frederick Ashton Festival last month, the dance-on-film expert Joanna Ney of the Film Society of Lincoln Center produced a two-day mini-festival of complete films and excerpts containing Ashton’s choreography. Some of these films are available on VHS or DVD, or they can be seen at the Dance Division of The New York Public Library on monitors. Still, there’s nothing like the big screen. And in the case of the 1931, black-and-white "Dance, Pretty Lady," (conceived, directed, and co-written by balletomane Anthony Asquith, who based the story on the novel "Carnival" by Compton Mackenzie), the two screenings of a pristine, British Film Institute archival print at the Walter Reade Theater were precious, indeed, as this delicately lensed and plotted movie isn’t even available at the Dance Division. The story of "Dance, Pretty Lady" concerns a young, Edwardian-era ballet girl who falls crashingly in love with and models for an aristocratic young sculptor, who abandons her for a while yet finally, and tenderly, returns. (It anticipates the events of Ashton’s ballet "The Two Pigeons," made a quarter-century later). As Ashton biographer David Vaughan has noted, both Asquith and his mother were fans of Ashton’s work: the corps de ballet at the theater was drawn from the Marie Rambert dancers with whom Ashton was then working. As Vaughan also mentioned in a live appearance before one of the screenings, the girl was played not by a dancer but rather by an actress, Ann Casson, only 16 at the time. She was lovely and persuasively a dancer; and her gesture of anxiety, in which she brings her fists to her temples as if her head were about to explode and she’s holding in her brains, also anticipates the same gesture performed by Moira Shearer in the famous close-up toward the end of "The Red Shoes."

Ashton’s contributions were a raffishly patriotic music-hall turn, lit by limelight, with the girls in their loose tights and high-button shoes combining for star formations and other charming choreographic figures. At one point, they do a deeply Ashtonian phrase of one or two crisply advancing steps then, turning round themselves, a little skipping hop that takes them part-way back There is also a pastiche of "Les Sylphides"—first set to excerpts from "Swan Lake" and then to the “Waltz of the Flowers” from "The Nutcracker"—that contains some memorable images, such as a circle in which the girls, wearing white Romantic-length tutus and wreaths of flowers in their hair, hold hands and incline forward in arabesque allongée, except that every other girl is facing in the opposite direction, thereby giving the circle a sculptural rhythm of curving indendations. Memorable lines of dialogue include: “I’d marry you like a shot. It would be conventional. You’re a ballet girl; you wouldn’t like it.” “When you’re finished nagging each other, I’m off.” “You can’t mess up a girl’s life and just say, ‘Sorry,’ as if you’d tread on her toe.” And, my favorite, the little verbal shrug, “Who cares?,” a signature locution of the girl, which Casson read in different ways, according to different situations.

Considered “arty” in its own period, "Dance, Pretty Lady" now looks almost austere in the sense that every shot has clearly been inspired by the remembrances of someone profoundly versed in artistic imagery—from the theater, the museum, the photographic gallery. Such a frame of reference in dance movies has been absent for so long that the entire use of it seems brand new. Jack Parker’s overhead cinematography of the backstage is particularly fine, anticipating Busby Berkeley’s development of his “top shot” angle by several years. There are, too, off-center compositions that were obviously inspired by the canvases of Degas (and that, as it happens, were also being tried experimentally with a still camera at the Philadelphia Academy of Music about the same time by the great Alexey Brodovitch, who was photographing de Basil’s troupe, to similarly ravishing effect.) What a pleasure.

The full-length screening of Margot Fonteyn’s ineffably beautiful performance in the title role of" Ondine" (Paul Czinner, 1960): what can one say? No steps, all dancing. The spirit of the dance, she truly was. To counterbalance that were two films featuring Moira Shearer: "The Tales of Hoffmann" (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, 1951), with guest appearances by Ashton, himself; and “The Jealous Lover,” the first third of a Hollywood picture called "The Story of Three Loves" (Gottfried Reinhardt, 1953), with a classroom sequence and two solos (one in heels, one on point) for Shearer that were as step-driven as any dances Ashton ever made. Shearer was almost Fonteyn’s opposite: a “closed” stage personality, she came alive when assigned complex and demanding technical movement. There is a sequence of allegro work in the classroom so demanding in its tempo and so brilliant in its execution by Shearer—with grands jetés where the advancing leg bends very slightly in air and then, still in air, straightens again, as if she were putting a circumflex on the phrase—that one can hardly believe what one is watching. In the point solo, Ashton also has her run up a shallow flight of stairs on her toes, recalling the descent of her Cinderella down a flight of stairs for the entrance to the ball.

In response to a letter of mine to him about these films, the British critic Alastair Macaulay—who interviewed Ashton in the 1980’s and whose interviews, research, and magisterial insights are acknowledged in Julie Kavanagh’s Ashton biography, "Secret Muses"—wrote back (and I quote from his message with permission): “Fred told me in ’84 that he really made the role [of "Cinderella"] with Shearer’s qualities very specifically in mind—and yet, in the very same interview, he said that it was Fonteyn whose account of the role was so locked into his memory that he could hardly see now how its current interpreters were tackling it.” In a second message, Macaulay added, about that ’84 interview: “I wanted him [Ashton] to say he had choreographed "Cinderella" using Shearer as proxy for the injured Fonteyn, but he wasn’t having any of it: he said that you can still see Shearer’s quality (“brittle,” I think was his word) in the ballroom solo. But, elsewhere in the same interview, when I said I’d never seen Fonteyn in her prime, he said, ‘How terrible for you,’ and one of the ballets he cited at once was Cinderella.”

James Mason, as a hare-brained Diaghilev figure who “discovers” the dancer Shearer plays, is stuck with lines more appropriate to an ump than a balletmaster (as when Shearer strikes an arabesque and he yells, “Hold it!”). However, his darkly musical voice is a balm for the ear, regardless of the nonsense he has to say, and his handsome, raw-boned face, with its glowering eyes set widely apart, looks uncannily like Rudolf Nureyev’s.

Alas, I was able to catch only the last part of "Tales of Beatrix Potter" (Reginald Mills, 1971)—a film I’ve seen many times on videocassette. The print at the Walter Reade seemed a little drained of color; however, Ashton’s china-teacup steps for the familiar and beloved characters were utterly enchanting in that enlarged projection, and, following a ballabile for all the characters that has the high decorum of a Louis XIVe ballroom, Ashton’s own, delicate, sashaying exit across the verdant field as Mrs. Tiggywinkle, the balabusta hedgehog, presumably returning to her house in the country, had the look of a choreographer bidding farewell to the stage. At least for the moment.—Mindy Aloff

Photo:  a scene from "Tales of Hoffman" with Moira Shearer, Frederick Ashton, and Leonid Massine.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 30
August 9, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on July 19, 2004