A Crowd-Pleaser, a Moonwalk, and a Stunning "Enigma": the Ashton Celebration Opens
I and II
This year—the centenary of the birth of Frederick Ashton as well as that of George Balanchine—the Lincoln Center Festival (in consultation with dance producer David Eden) has organized an Ashton celebration for two weeks at the Met. During this first week, the programs will be shared among The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, the Birmingham Royal Ballet from England, and the K-Ballet Company from Japan, each of which will present works from its Ashton repertory, under the batons of each company’s respective conductors. (Next week will be given over to The Royal Ballet.) It’s a lovely idea, and familiar, too, as the Kennedy Center organized a similar venture recently with several U.S. companies on behalf of Balanchine.
Frederick Ashton was a genius, without question; however, his work is not everyone’s cup of tea. Happily for me, it is mine, with watercress sandwiches and scones lathered in Devonshire cream. Of the four ballets on this opening program, all of which I first saw with their original casts, and two of which I’ve seen with several casts from both sides of the Atlantic, it seems to me that “Monotones II,” for three (to use Arlene Croce’s excellent word) saltimbanques, who seem to be spelling out a hymn to purity with their bodies on a rivulet of the Milky Way, is among the great works of abstract art from the 20th century, in any medium: worthy to be set beside a canvas by Mondrian or a sculpture by Brancusi. “Enigma Variations,” a demi-caractère epic of Edwardian sensibility, with classical underpinnings, about the interior life of an artist in his garden on an autumn afternoon, is among the greatest ballets in history. “Monotones I,” for a trio of terrestrials whose reference point is a sun that, although invisible to the audience, clearly dwarfs them, is the product of a master craftsman who understands how what can be seen testifies to what can’t: frequently beautiful, often surprising, an enticement to the eye on multiple viewings. “Rhapsody”, a chamber ballet for 14, in which a handsome interloper invades a court, overtakes it by dint of sheer bravura, and gets the queen, too, was made as a star vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov. While not top-drawer Ashton, it roused the audience on Tuesday more than his masterpieces. “Enigma Variations” was politely applauded; the reception for “Rhapsody” was tumultuous. It’s not the way I would want things to be, but one can’t legislate people’s responses in the theater, even when one’s heart is breaking over the crowd’s choice.
To begin with the crowd-pleaser: Set to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and loosely inspired by the plan for a Paganini ballet by Michel Fokine to the same music, “Rhapsody” was made for six corps de ballet couples, the ballerina Lesley Collier, and Royal Ballet guest artist Baryshnikov, who was apparently unhappy with the work. According to Julie Kavanagh, one of Ashton’s biographers (“Secret Muses”), Baryshnikov felt that the choreography, which identifies the male lead with Paganini (including a moment where he mimes playing a violin), merely summarized his own Soviet virtuosity while keeping him (literally) isolated on stage from the other British dancers, whose traditions and style he had sought out Ashton to learn. Still, as Ashton realized, virtuosity has a charisma independent even of the superstar who embodied it, and he put it to cunning use in a state-occasion ballet, conservative to a fault, that was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and whose première was attended by the entire royal family. The ballet opens with a solo for the male lead that is full of flying steps, brings on the six women as a setting for the star, then couples them with the six men. Eventually, the ballerina is introduced to the stage in an entrance that is meant to recall Aurora’s in the “Rose Adagio,” and, as the male lead stands upstage, watching, she is sequentially partnered by the corps men, as Aurora is partnered by her suitors. The star finally approaches her, and the stage clears for them to dance an adagio that features some Soviet-style lifts, delicately ornamented by the ballerina with flourishes for the arms and a becoming plastique in the body. The third movement, a feverish conclusion, begins with the male corps testing out air turns and other virtuosic elements of the classical lexicon. The ballerina joins them, the star returns, the corps women return. One sees many steps, much port de bras, relatively few images: the world here is more social than poetic. Like Rachmaninoff’s expansion of Paganini’s theme, the choreography is full of brilliance, although, unlike Rachmaninoff’s Paganini, the high spirits in the dancing contain an element of obligation. There was no sense of ceremonial duty in the Tuesday performances, though. Tetsuya Kumakawa, the founder of K-Ballet and a former Royal Ballet principal, is a good dancer in a role for a nonpareil; however, he, his ballerina—former Royal principal Viviana Durante—and his company performed “Rhapsody” with blazing commitment and attention to detail, and their vigor and obvious absorption struck a chord throughout the house.
The original costumes and scenic investiture of “Rhapsody”—which, as I remember, had been swathed in dusty pastels—were replaced after Ashton’s death by entirely new designs, commissioned from British artist Patrick Caulfield. The set’s multiple arches and shallow stairs now have the look of a 1930’s symphonic ballet, with heavy, abstract patterns in a palette that includes fire-engine red, aquamarine, mustard, and midnight blue. Every color seems walled off from every other color, to jarring and unsubtle effect. They do their job, I suppose, of keeping one’s visual attention on the stage; however, the cost in horizonless vulgarity, despite a moonlike disk at the back, seems to me much too high.
Robert Joffrey was a devoted admirer of Ashton’s ballets, and the company’s comparatively sizable Ashton repertory (probably the largest of any ballet company in the U.S.), demonstrates his collector’s temperament. At the Met on Tuesday, the company was represented by the early Ashton acquisitions “Monotones I” (performed by Jennifer Goodman, Calvin Kitten, and Stacy Joy Keller) and “Monotones II” (Michael Levine, Victoria Jaiani, and Samuel Pergande). These trios—the first for a man and two women, the second for a woman and two men—were made in the 1960’s, with “Monotones II” actually created first, for a gala, and called simply “Monotones.” Ashton’s biographer David Vaughan (“Frederick Ashton and His Ballets”) explained that this first trio was made shortly after Ashton had seen and commended Merce Cunningham’s “Septet,” also set to Eric Satie’s “Gymnopédies” and also clad in white. Vaughan notes, as well, that Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a smashing success in a register of narrative ballet quite unlike Ashton’s own, had just entered the repertory of The Royal Ballet. (Kavanagh takes this fact a step further, suggesting that “Monotones,” a small ballet without a set and whose white costumes and caps—sprinkled with brilliants and designed by the choreographer, himself—are a universe away from the sepias, golds, and heavy reds of Nicholas Georgiadis’s “Romeo” designs, was made by Ashton as a riposte to MacMillan’s work. As it happens, the comparison was continued this summer, since ABT’s last week of performances, which ended on the Saturday before the Ashton Celebration opened with “Monotones I and II,” were given over to MacMillan’s “Romeo.”) Just as Cunningham can be thought of to be, if not the inspiration, then the presiding spirit of “Monotones II,” the “Apollo” and “Serenade” of Balanchine can be glimpsed in a few referential groupings and gestures in “Monotones I.”
The Joffrey’s performance of “Monotones I” was a little tentative: some of those off-center movements for the torso and intricate sculptural groups are hard. (Indeed, the only cast I’ve ever seen who was commanding in it was the original cast: Georgina Parkinson, Brian Shaw, and Antoinette Sibley.) However, the memorable moments were in place, and the gesture that opens and is repeated toward the end of the dancers’ hands lifted and turned outward, as if to shield them from strong light, was tenderly enacted. The lunar calligraphy of “Monotones II” was quite lovely—Jaiani, still a teenager, was a slender tube of fluorescent light—and the moment I have always loved, when the trio breaks open so that each dancer is a point on a triangle that expands to the winglines and cyclorama, like a newborn star exploding into being, had the old magic. The famous changement sited on a key change, about which Croce has indelibly written, though, did not: it was there, but not to hair-raising effect. I’ve experienced that effect in other performances, too, however, and I wondered if the dancers were off the music. I also had never before noticed that both of the “Monotones” ballets have what is substantially the same ending, with one dancer passing back and forth through the other two. Very touching, all in all.
Mary Cargill has written an exquisite essay on “Enigma Variations” for DVT, comparing it provocatively (and, I think, productively) to Balanchine’s “Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündlertänze’” as two works about the interior lives of artists, made by magisterial choreographers in the latter parts of their own lives. I urge you to read it.
A few additional thoughts: Ashton’s choreographic sleight of hand in “Enigma”—to produce a ballet that looks like Chekhovian realism and is actually structured as one of the most subtle and delicate experiments in choreographic theme-and-variations in all of theatrical dancing—stuns. In the event, I have no other word for its impact on me. There is a sketchy storyline: Edward Elgar, the composer of the “Enigma Variations” the orchestra is playing, has retired to the country in the autumn of the year (1898) and the autumn of his life, with his wife and hordes of deliciously eccentric and individual friends, in depression at the obscurity in which he remains. His wife and friends try to cheer him up, and, in the course of their attempts, interact with one another in ways that range from boisterous to plaintive. A figure in a tulle-like gown appears to the composer, momentarily alone, with a little curlicue of fog at her feet, like a lapdog from the beyond, and dances a variation that could have been made directly for Ashton’s own beloved muse Anna Pavlova. It turns out, slyly, that she isn’t a fantasm but rather another friend with a remarkable sense of the theatrical, who happens to present herself at a moment when Elgar is isolated in his own reflections and sees her (a vision the audience is meant to share) as an agent of Art. Never have I witnessed elsewhere in the theater such a delicate image of what muses really and truly are. Eventually, a bicycle messenger delivers a telegram: first one friend opens the envelope and reads it; then, in sequence, every other friend becomes privy to it. Elgar, the addressee, is, in fact, the next-to-last to learn the message. His angelically consoling wife is the last, kneeling to pick up the telegram where her husband has let it flutter to the ground. Whatever the news is (for those who read the program notes, it’s the announcement that a well-known conductor has agreed to conduct Elgar’s new score—which is, in fact, “Enigma Variations: (My Friends Pictured Within)”—its plot function is to is to spark an exhibition in Elgar of Edwardian joy: a surging emotion that costume, convention, and circumspection permit the audience to see only as a fleeting expansiveness of person.
The complexity of this deceptively simple work includes a tapestry of cross-currents between demi-caractère and classical dancing that, even in 1968, when The Royal Ballet first performed “Enigma,” seemed to have been resurrected from an earlier age. The men wear street shoes; the women wear point shoes. Yet everyone is everything. And for those with an interest in dance history, one is reminded that the story of the ballet’s origins—the scenic designer Julia Trevelyn Oman had to wait over a decade to hear that Ashton wanted to make the ballet after she first left her idea for it and her sketches of the gloriously detailed garden and part of the house at the stage door for him to peruse—is also contained in the action. Beriosova and others have linked the Elgar figure to Ashton, yet Oman is in there, too.
The Birmingham Royal’s dancers are praiseworthy in the extreme for their consideration, their attention to minute detail, their plunge into the ballet’s world, so different from the ballets of our own. They didn’t lead one to forget Svetlana Beriosova’s original Mrs. Elgar, or Antoinette Sibley’s Dorabella, or Alexander Grant’s William Meath Baker, or Anthony Dowell’s Arthur Troyte-Griffith. Yet they gave us “Enigma Variations,” and, for those susceptible to its sentiments and processes, its performance was the occasion of 21st-century joy. I cannot offer greater praise. When, in the “Nimrod” variation—which Ashton set as a trio for the Elgars and their friend A.J. Jaeger, basing the episode on a walk they took one night to discuss Beethoven—Elgar slowly elevates his wife and presents her momentarily to their friend, in a gesture that bespeaks both high decorum and tremendous emotional intimacy. One could recognize a moment from “Monotones II”: the bones shone right through the ballet’s layers. Once more, this witness was brought up short by what Ashton, at his most concentrated, has to give.
photos, all performance shots, all by Stephanie Berger:
Royal Ballet's Joseph Cipolla and Silvia Jiminez in "Enigma Variations."