Ashton and Stravinsky: A New Video
It is probably necessary to say at the outset, to avoid disappointment, that owing to copyright restrictions imposed by Stravinsky's publishers, purchase of this DVD is restricted to educational institutions, libraries, and archives. This is too bad, but anyone who can buy it should do so, because it is an important contribution to Ashton studies in this, his centenary year. Anyone who has read Stephanie Jordan’s Moving Music (2000) or who heard her lecture on Ashton and music in the Lincoln Center Festival’s symposia last year will know that her analyses of music and choreography are remarkable for their clarity and insight. Her colleague Geraldine Morris, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, is working on a study of Ashton’s dance style. Together, they take us through excerpts from "Le Baiser de la fée," "Persephone," "Le Rossignol," and, more thoroughly, "Scènes de ballet." In the spring 2005 issue of the excellent British magazine Dance Now, there are brief articles by Jordan and Morris explaining the processes they followed in making this DVD.
"Le Baiser de la fée" was the first ballet Ashton made for the Vic-Wells Ballet after joining the company as resident choreographer in 1935, his largest work to date, and the first in which he created a leading role for Margot Fonteyn, who became his muse. It was Fonteyn who taught her variation to Nicola Katrak. She in turn taught it to Natasha Oughtred, who dances it here. There is also a tiny fragment of the choreography for the Bride’s Friends from the coda to the dances in the third scene. Whenever I see early Ashton choreography it is clear to me that there was never anything tentative about his work—as people have said to me about "Capriol Suite," in the recent revival by New York Theatre Ballet, “it’s all there.” Ashton’s version is contrasted with two others, by George Balanchine and Kenneth MacMillan. Balanchine’s (from the complete ballet, not the later storyless "Divertimento," though in fact there were distinct similarities between the two) is shown in Frederic Franklin’s reconstruction for the Balanchine Foundation, in which he coaches Nichol Hlinka, a real bonus, the only video I know of that wonderful, much missed dancer (an Ashton dancer manquée, in my opinion).
"Persephone" was made to display the extraordinary talents of Svetlana Beriosova, who not only danced the title role but declaimed the text by André Gide. The excerpts here, reconstructed from a silent film in the Royal Ballet archives by Christopher Newton, are fascinating, and it’s good to know that Newton (who was responsible for bringing back "Sylvia") will be working on a revival of the complete work. It seems that Ashton here devised a movement style specific to this ballet. If I had to define it, I would say that it is a blend of the jazzy and the archaic, with the dancers’ feet often in parallel. Clearly the influence of Bronislava Nijinska was not restricted to Ashton’s earlier work—there are distinct echoes here of "Les Biches," as Jordan and Morris demonstrate by having Mara Galeazzi dance a little of the latter ballet. (She will be dancing the role of the Girl in Blue Velvet when the Royal Ballet revives it later this season.)
Ashton’s last choreography to Stravinsky, and one of his final works, was for the opera "Le Rossignol," performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1981, and again by the Royal Opera two years later, with Anthony Dowell as The Fisherman. I believe it’s true that Ashton rehearsed Dowell and Natalia Makarova, in the title role, in London, and did not travel to New York to see the production there. In this video, Dowell coaches Federico Bonelli. (It’s a pity that he didn’t coach Damian Woetzel, who danced the part in last year’s revival at the Met; Woetzel was good in it, but would have been even better if Dowell could have worked with him.) Bonelli is generally regarded as one of the better Ashton stylists in the current Royal Ballet company. He was a fine Daphnis last year, and here he also dances a little of Dowell’s original role in "A Month in the Country," another of Ashton’s andante, legato solos for a male dancer—one of his important innovations, going back at least to Robert Helpmann’s in "Nocturne" (1936). The role of The Fisherman is a beautiful example, and again we see that Ashton invented almost a whole vocabulary for the role—not only ballet steps and mimetic gestures, but also a kind of modern dance plastique, even, as Dowell says at one point, Javanese-style arm movements. Stephanie Jordan shows that much of the choreography “has nothing to do with counts,” it’s even independent of the music. (And people ask me how I can reconcile my admiration for Ashton with that for Merce Cunningham.)
Quite properly, Jordan and Morris spend most time on "Scènes de ballet," with additional musical analysis from the pianist, Henry Roche, and indeed choreographic analysis by Antoinette Sibley, who coaches Galeazzi in the two solos from the ballerina role. There are excerpts from the complete ballet as danced by the Dutch National Ballet. I could wish that the two coaching sessions were not divided by those devoted to the other three works, but perhaps it was felt that since "Scènes" is undoubtedly the most important work, in fact one of the most important of all Ashton’s oeuvre, the video should begin and end with it. We are shown how deep Ashton’s musical responses were—though he was not always fitting steps to Stravinsky’s irregular rhythmic phrasing, but rather following the melodic line. An important feature of Ashton’s musical style, Jordan demonstrates, is his upbeat phrasing, which as I have written before has the effect of letting air into the phrase. "Scènes" also has its distinct vocabulary: many combinations end in one or other variant of the 4th position, and indeed there are many variants of classroom steps. Ashton had a way of turning steps inside out, as it were, such as the Russian pas de chat which the ballerina does, in Sibley’s words, “falling over backwards”—he wanted the dancer to take risks, “he loved that danger.” The result is a complex structure in which there is not a step or movement that does not relate to the whole.
I have only begun to indicate how much information there is in this video: suffice it to say that it will repay repeated viewings by those lucky enough to obtain a copy. And in case you were wondering, the “Fred step” occurs in all four choreographies, in multiple, of ten subtle, variants.
David Vaughan is the author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets (second, revised edition, 1999). The chronology of Ashton’s works from this book, continually updated, is available on ashtonarchive.com.