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June 7, 2005

Ashton: viewing and reviewing

Looking through my correspondence of the summer of 1997, when the Royal Ballet came to Lincoln Center I find this note I sent to friends:

Well, I've seen two evenings of the Royal Ballet during this visit, and two short Ashton works (La Valse and Daphnis & Chloe) one short MacMillan (La Fin du Jour) and one full length MacMillan (Prince of the Pagodas) as well as the Wheeldon pas.

I feel totally at sea.

I'm trying to look at these ballets the same way I might look at NYCB, and of course, that's not what they are about. I'm looking for dance design and expansive phrasing, and not getting it. All the dance phrases seem to collapse in on themselves or wrench themselves about.

Help! What am I missing? Could someone who likes Ashton or MacMillan PLEASE talk for a bit on

a) What makes either of the choreographers memorable
b) What are top drawer examples of their work
c) How the works are best danced

There's got to be more there than what I'm seeing.

Signed -

Confused at Lincoln Center

I also wrote a public piece on Ashton, ending by saying:

As I said, I hope I get to see more of the Royal - even at some point on a day to day basis. I think it's the only way to fully "get" the choreography.

When the Ashton Festival came to Lincoln Center in the summer of 2004, I finally had that opportunity. I went to every performance, buying the cheapest seat I could get and sneaking down to the orchestra after the first ballet. Alas, that was not a difficult task; the festival was a revelatory miracle but it did not sell well. But I got to see almost every ballet at least twice and there is no better way to get under the skin of a ballet than to see it repeatedly in a concentrated period. The first day was rough going. Monotones, Enigma Variations and Rhapsody done by three separate companies is not the most considered entry into Ashton. I had to throw my eyes out of focus at times to remind myself not to look only at the steps. But then Birmingham Royal Ballet presented a series of marvelous evenings with careful programming. They put Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan with Dante Sonata, and so the latter work did not seem like an aberration. The Two Pigeons was simply a treasure.

I went to London in November 2004 for three performances of Sylvia and two of Scènes de Ballet – a ballet I loved so much from the Ashton Festival that I am here yet again to see it. I regard repeated viewings like this as a joyous task, but a task nonetheless. You approach the process thoroughly. The three performances of the Symphonic Variations mixed bill got me a bit closer to answering my own questions from 1997. On the first viewing one watches the ballet as a larger whole. One can see the general shape, but not much detail. That comes on subsequent viewings, and that’s when you really start “getting” it; when you can see how Ashton structured the variations, or when a motif returns.

I get Ashton’s musicality better now. It’s more literal than I originally thought – some of Symphonic is as note-for-step as any of Balanchine – but it is also (to be reductive) more melodic where Balanchine tends to cleave more to the rhythms, or even create a counterpoint to the score. It helps to have learned a bit more about Cecchetti ballet training.

What makes Ashton memorable to me?

His stagecraft and dramaturgy. The “key scene” in A Month in the Country is brilliantly blocked; he’s got people going every which way turning a parlor upside down for a missing key – and it’s all somehow a dance.

His sense of design and phrasing – Symphonic Variations takes an allusive and elusive score (one Balanchine would probably never have touched) and hangs a ballet from it that is not just about the score. The vocabulary uses (his own demanding classicism that evolved from his training) and the gentle green space Sophie Fedorovitch creates for the ballet are as important as the music.

His chic: It’s hard not to love a choreographer who puts his corps de ballet in black and white, with pillbox hats and pearl chokers. Balanchine’s chic was Jazz Age chic of the 20s. Ashton’s was the high chic of the 40s. I can’t get enough of either of them.

His humanity: It’s a huge stretch to compare Ashton to Jane Austen, but the one connection I feel is the justness of the outcomes. The boy in The Two Pigeons learns what he needs to learn to return to his love and not stray again. Yet, neither good nor evil wins in Dante Sonata. What happens is what ought to happen.

I knew I would not give up on Ashton even back in 1997. I’m still often worried that I’m foolish or vain enough to like it because I finally “got” it than for anything that is actually there. But if you feel like a work of art eludes you, repeated viewings are the best way to take it on its terms.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at June 7, 2005 11:34 AM

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