Comedy, Dark and Divine
“I do not think that choreographers have necessarily to be ‘engaged’ or ‘committed’ or to write ballets about current social happenings,” Ashton said in “Ballet Annual 1959” (republished in David Vaughan’s “Frederick Ashton and His Ballets”). “These subjects are as likely to date as quickly as yesterday’s newspaper. Some say, and I think rightly, that if ballet is to be taken seriously, it must deal with serious matters. I believe simply that a ballet must be a good work of art; that it must express the choreographer’s vision of experience as truthfully and beautifully as possible. Insofar as it does this, it will express his most profound sense of values and thus be likely to concern itself with matters of more permanent significance than topical issues. He should deal with that which is spiritual and eternal rather than that which is material and temporary.” On the other hand, in 1959 Ashton probably didn’t realize that by 2004 this kind of talk would be considered quaint. “Truth”? “Beauty”? “Profound sense of values”? “Spiritual and eternal”? Lingo like that isn’t going to pack in the 19 to 34s. Indeed, on Wednesday, the second day of the Ashton Celebration, the Met looked half empty. One problem may have been that the first night got more or less glowing reviews. Glowing reviews, alas, don’t sell tickets. Vexation, affront, disdain: now you’re talking box office! The opening night ballets also didn’t have any sex one could, so to speak, shake a stick at. And the costumes! If you’re going to send Mrs. Elgar on a walk in the woods with two men, at least give her a leather bra. Doesn’t everyone know that Jaeger and the Elgars must have been into a lot more than a discussion of Beethoven, for goodness sake? They were “just friends”?
Wednesday was more like it: misery, naked legs, several crucifixions, and a bunch of rapelike activity. The kid’s a genius everywhere you turn. Let’s begin with Ashton’s serious side. Set in a town in 19th-century provincial France, the events of “A Wedding Bouquet” sound like a story by Dreiser or Hardy when one relates them without the action: a rake (Willy Shives; originally danced by Robert Helpmann), who seems to have dallied with half the women in town, is getting married to a young, unworldly girl (Emily Patterson; originally danced by Mary Honer) who is completely clueless about his past. At the wedding, one of the guests, Josephine (Britta Lazenga; originally danced by June Brae) drinks herself into a stupor; another guest, Julia (Maia Wilkins; originally danced by Margot Fonteyn), hollow-eyed, her hair alarmingly unbound amid the updos of the other ladies and who may have been the object of attempted (or achieved) rape—despite the efforts of her devoted dog, Pépé (Jennifer Goodman; originally danced by Julia Farron), to stave off the attacker—wanders about alone, distributing her gloom Cassandra-style. The Bride exchanges her wedding dress for a corseted tutu (under which one spots a garter on one of her thighs) and engages in a Wedding Night pas de deux with the Bridegroom, during which she misses every partnering maneuver and he forces himself to carry through anyway. “Bit-ter-ness!,” the narrator (Christian Holder) intones. “Bit-ter-ness!” The chaos of the occasion is barely held together by the maid, Webster (Julianne Kepley; originally danced by Ninette de Valois), who, secretly believing herself a Fairy in “The Sleeping Beauty,” keeps extending her forefinger into the air, even though she must be fantasizing that. . .well, you have to use your imagination here. Ashton, poor dear, couldn’t often bring himself to be brutally literal in the ballet. Our time is so much more advanced.
Now, for the comedy—“The Divine Comedy,” as it happens. Or about the first two-fifths of it: “Dante Sonata.” Good title, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Dante isn’t in it: his name refers to Constant Lambert’s orchestration of Franz Liszt’s “Fantaisie quasi Sonate” for piano, which looked back for inspiration to Victor Hugo’s “D’après une lecture de Dante” (“After reading Dante.”), which serves the ballet as a score. The ballet was made for audiences who were a little too preoccupied with bombs falling on them daily to pass the usual security test of reciting an entire canto by heart in order to get into the theater. They needed the simplicity of a soccer match, and Ashton provided it, kind of. The opposing teams are the “Children of Light,” who wear white costumes, men and women, and the “Children of Darkness,” whose men wear black briefs and black straps coiled around their chests and whose women wear black skirts with some white fabric visible underneath. The teams are not symmetrical. The “Children of Light” are led by two women and a man, and their corps ranks consist of five women and four men. The “Children of Darkness” are led by a man and a woman, and their corps ranks consist of seven women and three men. The great leveler is that everyone is barefoot, vulnerable.
Many people on Wednesday night associated that detail with Isadora Duncan, whom Ashton saw dance in London, in 1921—within a year of the time that Balanchine saw her in Russia and Hart Crane in his native Ohio. She was hardly at her best by 1921-22. She had lost three children—two in a freak automobile accident—and other loves in her life, and her major patron, and she was aging and looked it. In 1946, Balanchine told Todd Bolender that the Duncan on stage in 1921 was “a pig.” (I’ve also seen him quoted as saying “a fat pig, rolling around on the floor.”) Crane thought she was a sensation, but what did he know? He was only a poet. Ashton, though, had a little dance experience, and he “was completely captivated.” As he recounted on a tape in the New York Public Library (which David Vaughan quotes), he was shocked by her at first, but then he noticed that she “covered the stage in a most remarkable way, she had a wonderful way of running, in which she what I call left herself behind, and you felt the breeze was running through her hair and everything else. . .She was very serious, and an immensely strong personality that came right across the footlights and held the audience and compelled them completely; she was very considerable I think, as an artist and as a dancer.” There are several indelible passages of women grieving in “Dante Sonata,” one with Niobe-like grandeur, one motoring in circles, and those, indeed, seem Duncanesque., as do, possibly, some of the battlefield confrontations between the two corps. (Richard Buckle, one of Balanchine’s biographers, has suggested that Balanchine also made use of Duncan’s work when he staged the Venusberg dances at the Met.) The intricate sculptural groupings of “Dante Sonata,” however, with the dancers positioned at different levels (on the floor, on their knees, standing)—like the astonishing backdrop by Ashton’s friend and frequent collaborator, designer Sophie Fedorovitch, in which a cloud, sensually delineated in white on a black sky, morphs in one area into a human spine, and in which a group of white, horizontal lines presented from an angle suggest steps leading upward—show the inspiration from Ashton’s study of illustrations for Dante’s “Inferno” of John Flaxman and Gustave Doré. The events in the ballet are often bleak: the man in a pair of lovers is beaten and crucified; the military victories of the “Children of Light” are temporary only; and, at the end, the leaders of both “Children” are also crucified, with the Child of Light who was the mate of one of those leaders turning away from his elevated body to gesture ambiguously toward the crucified leader of the “Children of Darkness.” Bleak is good; bleak is contemporary; bleak is the wellspring of comedy! No one knew that better than Dante. Anyway, the energy level and dynamics of the choreography make the choreography quite exciting. And the ballet. . .I was going to write “has ambiguities that approach paradox,” but I’ll just leave it at: really keeps you guessing. Ashton said that he wasn’t thinking of Hitler’s march into Poland when he made it, but rather of the futility of war in general. Besides, by not making it literal, it still looks as fresh as Martha Graham’s “Heretic” or “Steps in the Street.” The same cannot be said of the music, unfortunately, which sometimes sounds like a concert offering and sometimes like accompaniment to a picture by Cecil B. de Mille.
“Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan”: Tips here would be hopeless. No plot, no subtext, no belt, much less room for the Beltway! Just the Birmingham’s Molly Smolen dancing as beautifully as someone who isn’t Lynn Seymour, for whom Ashton made it, could dance to some little stuff by Brahms, with Kate Shipway tinkling the--. . .I was going to write “ivories” but I’ll leave it at: keys. My colleague Tobi Tobias has already scooped the crowd by reporting that Seymour coached Smolen in the role, so I’m going to throw in the towel and send you to Tobias’s column (www.artsjournal.com/tobias). The one thing I’ll add on this is that one of Seymour’s coaching points must have been that, when the Isadora figure runs in a straight line from upstage to downstage, she leads with her left shoulder. It makes her body look more Hellenic that way, and it gives the run an incredible dynamism.
The evening opened with the K-Ballet’s production of “Rhapsody” this time, and the performances looked even better than the night before, almost fit for the Queen. The décor was beginning to grow on me, with its asymmetries and those little triangle gizmos planted in unexpected places, until Risa Takahashi, the excellent pianist, took her bow.
What a dress! From shoulder to metatarsal, it fit her like a surgical glove. And it was black and white, like a silent movie! Bliss.
1, 2, 3 and 5 are performance shots by Stephanie Berger.