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The Right Giants
When Sir Frederick Ashton died in 1988, one obituary quoted him as having said during one of his frequent bouts of insecurity—this time about the Bolshoi, whose broad, expansive scale he admired, though it went against his own instincts of lyricism and a soft classical perfection—"But what if we're the right pygmies, and they're the wrong giants?" Despite his qualms, Ashton is certainly one of ballet's giants; with George Balanchine (with whom he shares a birth year and whose works we've been celebrating this season), Ashton is one of the two great classical choreographers of the 20th century.
From 1949 until the late 1970s, when the Royal Ballet's regular visits to New York, and its cross-country tours in America, stopped, he was one of the most beloved as well as one of the most admired here. Again, with Balanchine, Ashton helped form America's eye and taste for neoclassical ballet. But the late 1970s is a long time ago now, and Ashton's work is barely known to many younger balletgoers. Although Joffrey Ballet has its own Ashton tradition, dating to Ashton's lifetime, and American Ballet Theatre has dipped its toe irregularly into Ashtonian waters, Ashton's ballets are just beginning to enter American repertories. After ABT's triumph with "La Fille Mal Gardee" a few seasons ago, and the televised production of its staging of "The Dream," one can hope that this 100th birthday summer is the beginning of an Ashton rediscovery, and that company directors will start looking for Ashton works to add to their repertories. If this happens, Lincoln Center may well be able to take a large share of the credit by getting audiences and dancers excited about Ashton again.
The Ashton Celebration that's part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival—appearances by four companies (Birmingham Royal, Joffrey, Royal Ballets, as well as the New York debut of Japan's K-Ballet) dancing 16 ballets among them (17, if you count "Monotones I" and "II" as separate works rather than permanently attached twins)—is brave, and varied and ambitious, in itself a fitting tribute to Ashton. Ashton is generally admired for his lyricism, musicality, deft depiction of charcter through dance, and mastery of the narrative form. All that is certainly true, but one must add that he created many genuinely funny ballets, possessed an unshakable belief in love and passion and beauty, and could turn almost anything—from a Mexican hat dance to a dainty-footed cauliflower—into a classical ballet. He also had what may have been an unfortunate gift. In a century that prized novelty, Ashton's inventions looked so inevitable, so classical, that he made the new look old. Several writers have mentioned this, and it's a thought worth exploring. His Isadora Duncan tribute ("Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan," which Joffrey Ballet will dance at the Festival, for example, uses Isadora's plastique, gives life to images we known from drawings and is danced in bare feet—yet is a classical ballet. It was also a portrait of its first dancer, Lynn Seymour, and so is a tribute to two great dancers rather than one. Writing roles that encapsulated their performers is another Ashton gift that's a double-edged sword.
More than any other choreographer whose works we know, I think, Ashton made ballets as specific as paintings. There's a rehearsal of "Monotones" captured on film, where he's explaining, not very patiently, that the dancers' rounded arms MUST, absolutely MUST, meet at the crooks of the elbows "or the geometry is off, don't you see?" The shape of a foot, the way a dancer's head is turned, even hair color (thinking of the brunette, blonde and redheaded ballerinas of "Symphonic Variations") are as integral to Ashton's ballets as their phrasing and their steps. Most choreographers prefer their works to be danced by first casts as long as possible, Ashton notoriously so. A brave way to make art, though not one that insures longevity. Some of Ashton's ballets disappeared because their sets and proportions didn't survive a change of stages, some, one suspects, because they're just so hard, and some because audiences could never quite accept new casts. Ashton's ballets are a challenge, and sometimes perhaps an ungrateful one, for subsequent interpreters, yet it's possible, with attention to the style (the épaulement, the fleet footwork, and, especially, the phrasing, the way of connecting steps in one smooth, legato flow) to dance Ashton's works in a way that does them justice. An example of this possibility is "La Fille Mal Gardee," one Ashton work that's entered the repertories of many companies and that has proved quite porous, and others will as well.
The works to be danced this summer—a grab bag, really, like the wonderful Balanchine Celebration the Kennedy Center did a few seasons ago, a come-as-you-are party, where the companies bring what they have in current repertory rather than a systematic retrospective—show Ashton's enormous range. Another 16 ballets would reveal 16 more facets, but what New York will get to see during these two weeks are: "Cinderella," from 1948, which looks, until you peer at it intently, as though Petipa had finished "The Sleeping Beauty" on Friday and Ashton walked into the studio the following Monday. Ashton's "Cinderella" looks, in many ways, like "The Sleeping Beauty," and follows Petipa's form, but the dances themselves, and the tragi-comic stepsisters, are very much a twentieth-century extension of classicism. There are also pas de deux with no excuse for existence save their beauty (the Awakening pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty," and "Thais"); a cry of anguish over war ("Dante Sonata," a ballet declared dead years ago and revived against all odds by Birmingham Royal Ballet); a display of virtuosity ("Rhapsody"); a French country wedding that goes awry, with a text by Gertrude Stein ("Wedding Bouquet"); a classical ballet disguised as a skating party ("Les Patineurs"); a distillation of Romanticism and passion ("Marguerite and Armand"); a ravishing and rigorously classical exercise setting Euclid to Stravinsky ("Scenes de ballet"); and a moon walk that's also a poem about classical line ("Monotones"). "The Two Pigeons" and "Enigma Variations," which share a program, are in some ways polar opposites, one a story of young love, the other a...how does one describe a ballet that's about the insecurity of the artist, married love, the inability of either friend or wife to help the man both love dearly, English country life, and the specific individuals Elgar memorialized in his music, whom Ashton had never met? "Enigma," yes, that one. What all share, besides Ashton's fluid musicality, sure sense of composition, and inventive use of the classical vocabulary, is his compassion and understanding of humanity. I can't find the pygmy in there, but I can certainly see the giant.
To find out more about Ashton's ballets, read David Vaughan's "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets." The second edition, published in 1999, has complete coverage of Ashton's career. If it's not in your local bookshop, you can order it on Amazon.
To read very brief summaries of the ballets to be danced at the Lincoln Center Ashton Celebration, click here.
Sir Frederick Ashton; photo: Leslie E. Spatt.
Molly Smollen of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in Frederick Ashton's "Five Brahams Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan." Photo: Bill Cooper.
Rachel Peppin and Chi Cao in "The Two Pigeons". Photo: Eric Richmond.