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Lincoln Center Festival
Ashton Celebration
July 6-17, 2004

The Sunny Side of the Street:
The Royal Ballet in Washington

by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2001 by Mary Cargill
originally published in DanceView, Summer 2001

Since New York seems to have been declared an Ashton-free zone, the Royal Ballet’s all-Ashton Kennedy Center performances in June meant that many New Yorkers made the trip to Washington to luxuriate in that delicate, difficult, and gracious choreography. The Royal Ballet brought a mixed bill of Les Rendezvous, the Thaïs Pas de Deux, Symphonic Variations, and Marguerite and Armand, and the full-length La Fille mal gardée. If at times it seemed that the week might be called Ashton Mal Gardée, there were many wonderful things to be seen.

These did not include the new designs for Les Rendezvous, which were deservedly excoriated when first seen in England. The ballet, made in 1933 for the stunning virtuosos Alicia Markova and Stanislas Idzikowsky, and reworked several times, is set to charming music by the minor nineteenth-century composer Auber, and the traditional William Chappell designs suited the style and the period. The new ones have a hard-edged 1950’s chic, the women in polka-dotted strapless dresses, Day-Glo gloves and colored Slinky-toy hats that kept bobbing in a desperate attempt to be cute; the men wore brightly colored striped jackets and looked like 1920 parvenus trying to be natty. The sets, too, with cutout cypress trees and a giant, color-changing sun, were overbearing and distracting. But the architecture of the choreography, with its wonderful patterns, delicate wit and building excitement, is impossible to disguise.

The cast I saw, led by Miyako Yoshida and Johan Kobborg, managed the deceptively difficult choreography, with its fast footwork and changes of direction, very well. Yoshida, a neat, compact dancer with an immaculate technique, was bright as a new penny, but the ballet is really worth more than that. Kobborg, with his fleet Danish training, was wonderful, smooth and clear and fun loving. The pas de trois, danced by Jaimie Tapper, Justin Meissner, and Jonathan Howells, too, was very good, and the audience loved the whole piece.

The Thaïs Pas de Deux was a gala trifle that Ashton created for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell in 1971. I suspect that any work done for Dowell will look disappointing when danced by someone else, because his elegant reserve and rich, pure line are unique. But Adam Cooper was very good as the mysterious dreamer. Sibley, too, with her impeccable feet and wayward majesty, is hard to replace. Though Leanne Benjamin was pliant and seemingly easy to lift, she caught little of the smoky mysterious spirit of the work.

Sibley and Dowell themselves made a farewell appearance in another brief pas de deux, Soupirs, set to Elgar, which Ashton choreographed in 1980 for another gala. In it, two older people, former lovers, meet unexpectedly at a park bench. They discover they are reading the same poem, revisit their former feelings, and then separate. Yes, it was sentimental, but not overly so, and no, the years did not roll away as they danced. But the audience held its breath for the care, devotion and completeness of the performance, and stood and applauded generously and wholeheartedly.

Their farewell was preceded by Symphonic Variations, Ashton’s 1946 salute to spring, peace, and classical dancing. The six dancers never leave the stage and are almost always in motion, but it should look effortless. (In this performance, I could hear the men gasping for air; for all our talk about stronger technique, Clive Barnes said in a panel discussion that the original men danced much better than the current casts.) Alina Cojocaru, the young Romanian sensation, danced the lead woman, a role choreographed for Margot Fonteyn. She is small and very slight, too light, I thought for the rich, controlled emotions of the role. The dancers, with the exception of Sarah Wildor, seemed somewhat uneasy, as if they had been told it was a great work, but didn’t quite know why; they seemed to confuse severity with serenity.

Few called Marguerite and Armand a masterpiece when it premiered, and Ashton himself did not want it danced without its creators, Fonteyn and Nureyev. But Dowell revived it very successfully for the French dancer Sylvie Guillem, and it closed the evening. Essentially an extended series of pas de deux, it was not the perfect closing ballet, but Ashton’s condensed treatment of the Camille story is dramatic and moving. Guillem, usually a thoroughly modern miss, intelli-gently did not try to imitate Fonteyn. She was a younger, passionate and almost rebellious Marguerite. I did miss the vulnerability, but on its own terms, it was very successful. I saw Jonathan Cope as Armand, a tall dancer with an easy luxurious line, but without the sense of urgency Nureyev brought. His nostrils did not flair.

There are no flaring nostrils in La Fille mal gardée, which Ashton, with typical understatement, called his poor man’s Pastorale Symphony. He was half-right—it has a symphonic sweep—but there is nothing poor about this most perfect ballet. History says that in the 1780’s the French choreographer Dauberval passed a glazier’s shop in Bordeaux and noticed a lithograph in the window showing a peasant woman chasing away a young man while her daughter is crying among sheaves of wheat. In 1789 he created a ballet based on those figures, adding a rich man and a doltish son as a rival for the hand of the young girl; the ballet, which came to be called La Fille mal gardée (The Badly Guarded Daughter), was very popular and a version of it survived in Russia. In 1960 Tamara Karsavina, who had danced the heroine in pre-World War I St. Petersburg, encouraged Ashton to produce his own version. He followed the detailed libretto but developed his own choreography; however he included the St. Petersburg mime scene shown him by Karsavina, in which the heroine, Lise, imagines marriage and children with her beloved Colas, not realizing that he can overhear her. Ashton’s version is perfectly constructed with no padding and no extraneous dances; everything grows out of the story and the atmosphere, a sun-filled landscape where peasants harvesting wheat would naturally spend their lunch break dancing.

It was Ashton’s most instantaneous critical success when it was created, and the Washington audience loved it, from the early-morning caperings of the rooster and his four hens to the final, inevitable happy ending. Ashton lavished steps on the hero and heroine, but also created two brilliant character roles in Lise’s mother, the Widow Simone, and in Alain, the dimwitted son of a rich farmer. Technical Ashton is hard, but comic Ashton is harder, requiring wit, timing, intelligence, and taste, and the dancers were not always up to it.

I saw three performances; Miyako Yoshida with Johan Persson, Mara Galeazzi with Johan Kobborg, in his debut, and Sarah Wildor with Ethan Stiefel (on a quick visit between ABT performances). Yoshida and Persson gave rather one-dimensional performances, each smiling with a genuine, but unvarying expression throughout the evening. Yoshida danced crisply, with a careful and lovely attention to detail. Her overall projection may have been muted but many details were lovely, if not very individual. It was a fine performance, but it was Yoshida dancing, not Lise. Persson, a recent recruit from the National Ballet of Canada by way of the Royal Swedish Ballet School, has a non-stop grin and he seemed very pleased to be dancing, more pleased than the quality of his dancing warranted. Fewer and more accurate turns would have been more cause for celebration.

Kobborg was, for me, the most satisfying Colas. He had no problem with the neat, fast choreography and found wonderful little variations in the steps, so there was no bombast. Colas is cheerful and exuberant, but he is not a showoff. Kobborg’s mime was clear, natural, and detailed; the scene where he surprises Lise dreaming of married life and comforts her by saying that yes, he too want to get married by gently kissing her arms were delicate and tender. His Lise was the Italian trained Mara Galeazzi; it was not a match made in ballet heaven. She is tall for him, and rangy, with awkward, flyaway arms. She has a lovely jump but much of the compact choreography, with its frequent changes of direction, didn’t suit her, though there were no mishaps. However, her interpretation was very good, and she was a spunky but loving Lise.

Sarah Wildor, with her luscious upper body and clotted cream musicality was the most enjoyable of the Lises I saw. The harvest dance, with its difficult balances and fast footwork was a bit of a challenge for her, but it was beautifully developed and characterized. She turned the dance into a public declaration of love, her face growing more animated and more joyful as the dancing progressed. Her mime scene, too, where she gently pretended to spank her child and then rock the new baby, her tearful embarrassment when she realized Colas was listening, and her radiant, soft joy when he proposed to her, was so effective. (How could anyone, after seeing an audience hang on every word, say that mime is old-fashioned, boring and unintelligible?)

Stiefel was very good in that scene, attentive and gentle; they were not just two young things eager for some fun, but two adults making a serious and loving commitment. His dancing, though, was a bit broad and generic. When he started a series of turns, he seemed to slip out of character with a flash of his arms and become Ethan Stiefel, guest artist doing pirouettes. Some of his characterization, too, seemed exaggerated; when handing out the wine at the harvest, he seemed to be playing Conrad swaggering in front of his pirate band and distributing loot. Colas is a ballet farmer, of course, and should not be danced like he has dirt under his fingernails, but he should look like he knows how to use a sickle. But Stiefel’s dancing was clear and clean and he had the outlines, if not all the style, of a fine Colas.

The Widow Simone was originally danced with underplayed comic timing by Stanley Holden; the current Widows ranged from acceptable to truly vulgar, and none, for all their over-active twitching and jiggling, got the humor Holden could find just by twisting an ankle. Simone, for all her mercenary attitude, must have some dignity, and she truly loves her daughter. Ashley Page, the opening night Simone, was just mean and coarse; when nothing else was working, grabbing his bosoms seemed to be his idea of humor. Neither he nor Luke Heydon tried to make Simone a female character; they were just music hall turns aimed at the audience. Heydon even threw in a cartwheel during the clog dance, a tasteless bit of exhibitionism completely out of character. William Tuckett was more dignified and played the Widow as a woman without all the body part jokes, but even he overdid the pratfalls during the clog dance. The humor of that dance is in the timing and the rhythm, not in the sight of a man on his rear with his skirts up.

Alain, the awkward, unattractive rich boy, was choreographed for Alexander Grant, one of Britain’s greatest character dancers. With his long, sad, clown’s face and expressive eyes, he made Alain so more than a buffoon. In fact, Ashton gives Alain the closing moments of the ballet, when he is reunited with his beloved umbrella; even though he is mocked and scorned, in this sunny world even the village doofus is not completely humiliated.

The opening night Alain, Jonathan Howells, gave one of the finest performances of the brief season; there were many “best since Grant” comments in the inter-mission. His approach differed from Grant’s more physical performance. Howells was quieter, a very gentle, pathetic Alain, whose foibles were ridiculous but never over-exaggerated; he is not a scene-stealer. But I could not help watching him throughout the harvest scene as he stood there and let every thought Alain had, from loneliness and rejection to vanity and satisfaction (after all, he, with his umbrella, was the only one prepared for the storm) show in his eyes. This Alain was the spoiled son of a rich man, not really nasty, just overindulged and very human.

The other Alains I saw—Giacomo Ciraci and Tom Sapsford—were more caricatures, twitching and jumping around, like giant puppets. They often went for the easy laughs, with lots of eye popping and stumbling and grinning at the audience. Neither guyed the role as badly as did the Widow Simones, and some of Alain’s pathos came through. But, while they may have given Alain a heart, Howells gave him a soul.

Despite some reservations, this Fille was a clear success and the inventiveness, grace, charm, and basic humanity of Ashton’s choreography dazzled the audiences. What extraordinary luck it was that over two hundred years ago some obscure owner of a long-forgotten shop liked a lithograph so much that he displayed it in his window, and that Dauberval decided to walk down the sunny side of the street.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Ashton Preview Section
July 1, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mary Cargill
reprinted from DanceView, Summer 2001


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