writers on dancing


Ashton's Great Innovation

“Symphonic Variations.” "A Month in the Country," "Les Biches"
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
Covent Garden
June 2-18, 2005

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

We come to the final programme in the Royal Ballet’s season of homage to Ashton, and what a programme it is. The centre-piece is what many think his greatest ballet, and indisputably one of the most vital in his development, “Symphonic Variations”. When he created it in the spring of 1946 as his first postwar ballet and his first for Covent Garden, we—the big audience that grew up for Sadler’s Wells Ballet before and during World War Two—had never before seen anything like it. Come to that, Ashton himself had no precedent for it; remember that Balanchine’s invention of pure classic ballet from “Serenade” onwards happened unseen by us after he had left Europe for America. Ashton too had made ballets with little or no plot as far back as 1928-30 for Rambert, and his prewar works for Sadler’s Wells included “Les Rendezvous” and “Les Patineurs”, where the slight themes of meetings or skating were just a pretext for display dances. The expressionist manner of his 1941 ballet “The Wanderer” to Schubert’s music may have been influenced by Massine’s symphonic ballets, but all that is really remembered from it is the new virtuosity he won from Margot Fonteyn and the voluptuous sensuality of a duet for Pamela May and Michael Somes. And those three were to make up half the cast of what effectively was his next ballet five years later (I am omitting, as I imagine Ashton too might prefer to do, the nationalistic fervour of “The Quest”, a pageant-ballet for which he was granted leave from his war service in the Royal Air Force).

So Ashton had lots of time to brood on “Symphonic Variations” and even, since the premiere was postponed by Somes’s injury, the unprecedented opportunity to revise it before the first night. Hence this totally new style, 18 minutes of continuous lyrical dance for a small cast in an abstract setting by his long-time friend and colleague Sophie Fedorovitch, with costumes like a beautiful white stylisation of superior classroom wear. It is accepted that her decor evokes the English countryside, a great inspiration for Ashton, and it occurs to me that the clothes in effect were an infinitely more poetic version of the tights-and-tunics uniform invented later by Balanchine for his plotless ballets.

Performances of ballets so exquisitely made for their original dancers are hardly ever going to match the opening casts, but at least we have got past the time when newcomers were inhibited by awe at what they remembered or had been told of their predecessors. This time round we had two casts, including one virtually new name well worth remembering, Steven McRae. He is Australian born and trained, and graduated into the company only this season after winning the Adeline Genée Gold Medal and the Prix de Lausanne as a student. A late replacement because of a colleague’s injury, he danced what we old hands call the Henry Danton role (doesn’t that date me), his looks proving as lively and elegant as his technique, and his style fitted right in. Here’s a real find. Federico Bonelli in the Somes role uncannily reminded me at times of Somes—there’s glory for you! Some of the other dancers were not so hot, but the ballet itself again proved tremendously enjoyable.

In “A Month in the Country”, Ashton's late-career Turgenyev adaptation, Sylvie Guillem as Natalia Petrovna effectively danced and acted everyone else right off stage, but Natasha Oughtred made a good Vera and Massimo Murru an acceptable Beliaev. Darcey Bussell led the second cast; she waved her arms about with energy. The rising young Rupert Pennefather made a promising debut as Beliaev, and improvised bravely when Bussell sabotaged his final gesture of kissing her ribbons by hugging them to her when they should hang down her back. Paul Kay, another of this year's new young men, danced dazzlingly as the son, Kolia; but although it’s good to see someone so obviously enjoying his work, perhaps another time he could refrain from grinning the whole time? And I still think it’s a shame that when Anthony Dowell was inappropriately changing the designs of so many ballets, he left this one as it was, overshadowed by Julia Trevelyan Oman’s congested setting.

With these two Ashton ballets Monica Mason placed “Les Biches”—a far better juxtaposition than some of the season’s earlier programmes. We probably owe this ballet’s survival to Ashton’s immense admiration for its choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska, and his decision, when he became director of the RB, to get her to mount it for them. At that time I suspect it had been out of the repertoire since the Cuevas Ballet’s performances in 1948 and might otherwise have been forgotten or mis-remembered. I want to come back to “Biches” later when I’ve caught up with a later cast; meanwhile I’ll just smile in anticipation of a further viewing.

Photos, all by Dee Conway:
First: Federico Bonellii and Alina Cojocaru (with Johan Kobborg in the background) in "Symphonic Variations."
Second: Federico Bonelli in "Symphonic Variations."
Third:  Rupert Pennefather as Beliaev in "A Month in the Country."
Fourth:  Bennet Gardside, Zenaida Yanowsky, and Thomas Whitehead in "Les Biches."

Volume 3, No. 23
June 13, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on June 13, 2005