To call a programme of new ballets “Inspired by Ashton” is begging a question. The choreographers concerned (in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre) may all tell you that Sir Fred was an inspiration, but none of them looked to me very inspired. William Tuckett’s “Mr Bear-Squash-You-All-Flat” (revived from a 2001 workshop in the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio) was the best, and the prime inspiration there came from Ashton’s old colleague Constant Lambert, who was only 18 when he adapted the amusing plot from an old Russian children’s tale and set it to music. A narrator recounts the story of different animals, each portrayed by a dancer, hiding inside a hollow tree until the bear arrives and lives up to his name. Laura Morera as the Mouse is perhaps the most convincing, but all do a good job.
With this there were to have been four newly made pieces, but the Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz’s “Fantasy” had to be omitted on the press night because its leading woman, Marianella Nunez, was dropped and badly bruised at that day’s rehearsal and there was no time to prepare a replacement. All the other works found some praise but I can’t contribute to it. Former RB dancer Antony Dowson provided a mild, innocuous but unmemorable suite of dances to Rachmaninoff piano pieces, much like what he has often done for pupils at English National Ballet School where he now teaches. I wish the “Two Footnotes to Ashton” by the Danish dance-maker Kim Brandstrup were similarly forgettable. He claims inspiration from Ashton’s unique use of music, but the lascivious duet he made for Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg to a Gluck aria and the would-be dramatic solo for Zenaida Yanowsky to a Handel aria seemed to me quite unrelated to the scores. As for Wayne McGregor’s “Engram” for Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli, it looked just typical of his twisted shapes to rackety music, the only Ashton connection being the portraits included in Ravi Deepres’s accompanying—or rather, concluding— film.
No, I’d say that the people who have been Inspired by Ashton at Covent Garden this past season have been the dancers—what an improvement there is in many of them—and us, the audiences. I’ve already commented on the final Ashton works of the season, “Symphonic Variations” and “A Month in the Country”, but I have to add a word about the ballet given with them, “Les Biches”. The men, I thought, hadn’t really been taught the curiously lecherous loping slide that Serge Lifar borrowed for his choreography of “Suite en blanc”, but the second-cast trio of Viacheslav Samodurov, Valeri Hristov and Kenta Kura was markedly better than the opening night with Martin Harvey, Bennet Gartside and Thomas Whitehead. The first-night hostess was a disappointment too: Darcey Bussell’s steps were as out of style as her smoking and flirting were unconvincing. Luckily Deirdre Chapman managed better at her one matinee, and Yanowsky even more so. The dancer who stood out on opening night was Leanne Benjamin as La Garconne—the ambiguous creature in blue. I also thought the delicately lesbian duet, Chanson dansée, was very well handled by both casts, Isabel McMeekan with Morera, and the more junior Caroline Duprot with Bethany Keating. Fine dancing, too, all through the run, from the women’s ensemble. Congratulations and thanks to Anonymous who supported this revival with its witty Poulenc score, gorgeous Marie Laurencin designs, and choreography as inspired for the corps de ballet as for the principals. No wonder that Ashton wanted the ballet in the RB’s repertoire as soon as he became director, and no wonder that he always said how much his own work was Inspired by Nijinska. To have her ballet and two by him on the London season’s closing night was a real treat.