My Friends Pictured Within
"Enigma Variations" and "The Two Pigeons"
a wonderful ballet "Enigma Variations" is—there's really
nothing more one could ask of a work of art than this. It is rich on every
level, and has an unusual appeal for a ballet: Sir Frederick Ashton's
sublime narrative work is about grown-ups in a grown-up world. No one
is enchanted, though someone may be imaginary. No one is an animal, though
someone portrays a dog while telling a story about one. No one has magic
powers. Never for a second do you have to suspend your disbelief. In this
"Enigma Variations" is a triumph of naturalism, but also of
neo-classicism—the choreography is all ballet, though tempered with
everyday human gesture, and hence humanized. We have been lucky to have
the Birmingham Royal Ballet here to perform it, and to perform it in a
way more satisfactory, as an immediate experience, than I remember a previous
Royal Ballet performance here to have been. Although there could have
been more variety in the tempi among the variations–the fast faster,
the slow perhaps slower—the ballet was in every way acceptable,
which is saying a very great deal. One demands the most when a beloved
work is returned to one's attention, calling up everything one felt upon
first seeing it, and everything one has learned to feel since. My only
complaint is that I would like to see it again, and it is over.
Without going into it in any great detail, I will just say that a leading contender among code theorists for the source of embedded theme is "Rule Britannia" though there is one rump group favoring Mozart . At any rate the ballet itself is very British, though there is a certain moment at the end, when Sir Edward kneels to his wife, that recalls the end of "The Marriage of Figaro," when the Count apologizes to his countess. (Ashton is a genius of apology, as one saw particularly on this bill–and coo also comprising "The Two Pigeons," which ends in remorse and forgiveness.)
It was Ashton's great achievement not to explain the enigma, but to create the atmosphere of enigma though characterization, directly derived from the sound-portraits of his intimates that make up Elgar's theme and variations, to whom he referred as "my friends pictured within." (See period photographs of the actual persons portrayed.) The Ashton enigma is this: we are not sure of the exact nature of Elgar's relationship to the women in the ballet who are not his wife, and indeed—in the case of a muse figure who bourées in from the garden cloaked in mist—whether one woman is conjured by his imagination. She is outside the house—the domain of Lady Elgar—but inside. She is inside Elgar's head. His relationship with his publisher Jaegar is also subject to interpretation, though to intuit anything romantic would be more Freudian than the ballet itself. Indeed, if you want to go that far, there is in fact a famous trio that can be interpreted though Freudian triangulation as Elgar experiencing his wife, who was some eight years his senior, as his mother, and his publisher as his father.
Interior, exterior. The set the designer eventually devised is exactly
that. The frontispiece is a copse of trees though which you glimpse, on
the left, a hammock, with a fully dressed table set next to it, compete
with lace over-cloth. In the center, a stone arch marks the entry to the
garden, with woods beyond. On the right, a spindle-banistered flight of
stairs, with an intermediate landing. Beneath the stairs, another arch,
neoclassical, but hung with a patterned curtain on a rod. Before that
there is a table and chairs, flanked by a wall with a fire place featuring
a rather elaborate yet reticent supermantel, inset with what appear to
be enamel plaques. Copse, table, country house, fireplace, table, chairs.
The entire affair could house "The Three Sisters," "The
Cherry Orchard," or "Uncle Vanya"—the last of which
Chekov wrote in 1897, the year before Elgar wrote the Enigma Variations.
The "Nimrod " begins with the publisher adjusting his glasses—on
July 9, at the Met, Pierpaolo Ghirotto danced the part, looking much like
the originator, Desmond Doyle, as he is seen on a film from 1969—then
stepping forward in pensive ronde de jambes, as if tracing a thought.
It's one of the rare moments in the ballet when a character steps from
the back of the stage to the front, and the variation will end with Jaegar
and the Elgars—Joseph Cipolla and Silvia Jimenez—rushing forward
towards us, only to turn and walk quietly, and with the utmost poetry,
back to the garden arch. This phrase, too, is unusual, for most often
in this ballet one is aware of the characters moving backwards by backing
up, not by turning their backs on us. Nonetheless, even in the dramatic
moments of frontal emphasis, here and elsewhere, there is absolutely no
breaking of the fourth wall in "Enigma." Indeed I could argue,
and I think I will argue, that there ought not to be any breaking of that
wall in any of the Ashton I've seen this first week of the Ashton Festival,
though people seem to do it, in a mistaken effort at charm, which if course
is by nature effortless, and imbued in the steps.
I found some details of the performance too audience oriented, but having never seen the ballet before, I was merely intuiting this. I wanted to gaze into the world of the ballet, and I didn't want it to be gazing back, or worse, soliciting my attention. Further, a ballet with a gypsy caravan is never going to be my favorite thing, but I feel I should mention that after I had learned more about the work—in specific, after Vaughan and Macaulay had explicated some of the reasons they love it, in a Saturday afternoon symposium presented in association with The New York Library for the Performing—I found I enjoyed it more myself at a second viewing. They had been eloquent about the underpinnings—the craft, the structure—and so I found myself reconciled to the adorableness of it all, and almost willing to remember, for all that I've enjoyed forgetting, what it is like to be young, in love, and betrayed. Ashton's was a heart that did not grow old.
by Stephanie Berger, taken July 7, 2004.: