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Lincoln Center Festival 2004: Ashton Celebration / Metropolitan Opera House, NYC / July 6-17, 2004

Q: What do Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, Marius Petipa, and Euclid have in common? A: Serving Frederick Ashton as his muse. True, the geometrician of ancient Greece was not as frequent an inspiration to the man who essentially invented English ballet style as were the dance icons in this group. Nevertheless, he reigned over the abstract Scènes de ballet, choreographed in 1947, with which the Royal Ballet has just opened its week-long run at the Metropolitan Opera House. “I, who at school could never get on with algebra or geometry, suddenly got fascinated with geometrical figures,” Ashton is quoted as saying in David Vaughan’s Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, “and I used a lot of theorems as ground patterns for Scènes de ballet. . . . I also wanted to do a ballet that could be seen from any angle—anywhere could be front, so to speak. So I did these geometric figures that are not always facing front—if you saw Scènes de ballet from the wings you’d get a very different, but equally good picture.”

Apparently, what delighted Ashton in pure, rigorous mathematics was the similarity of this discipline to classical ballet, the principles of which constitute a codified system built to yield dancing that is harmoniously proportioned, exquisitely balanced, and grounded in logic both visual and anatomical. And Scènes de ballet, in its abstract and exquisitely inventive embodiment of the danse d’école, does recall Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous proposal that “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.”

Structure is all-important to Scènes de ballet, being not simply an element of its composition but quite possibly its main subject. And this structure—the action organized for a ballerina, a male principal, four male soloists, and a female ensemble of twelve—is impeccable. Nevertheless, while everything in the ballet seems inevitable, almost nothing about it is ordinary. Every one of the dance’s 17 minutes contains several surprises: kaleidoscopic configurations, unexpected choices about who accompanies whom, stage patterns that seem to be evanescent landscapes in an imaginary world. The architectural design of the piece is so sound and yet so filled with wonders, you wouldn’t want a single element of the choreography to be otherwise. What you want, after the ballet has amazed you for the first time, is to see it again, immediately.

It’s well-nigh impossible to describe the happenings in an abstract ballet persuasively; the result invariably reads like a grocery list, while a choice among them often seems arbitrary. So I’ll content myself here with noting two aspects of Scènes de ballet that struck me especially. First, in the area of hierarchy (essential to ballet, which emerged from the royal courts), Ashton delivers, simultaneously, both an homage to traditional order and an ongoing proposal that all such givens can be rewardingly inflected. If, for example, classical dancing usually recognizes the ballerina as the queen of the proceedings, Ashton is not about to argue with such a useful tenet and gives the lady her due; however, it’s the commanding male principal who opens the show, surrounded by four male acolytes who represent the coupling of strength and grace. Second, since a Euclidean ballet seems to call for an adherence to Petipa, who prepared some of his choreography by manipulating chessmen in their grid-like field, Ashton responds with many of the geometrically inclined tactics Balanchine, also a Petipa devotee, would employ in the circumstances. Yet he always softens and colors his efforts with a Romantic-style fluidity that evokes the Fokine of Les Sylphides and the performances of Pavlova and Duncan.

Scènes de ballet is set to Stravinsky’s score of the same name, composed in 1944 for a more frivolous occasion, a Billy Rose revue called The Seven Lively Arts, where Anton Dolin choreographed the dance number for himself and Alicia Markova. The music allows for concerns lower-browed than Euclid’s, and Ashton indulges himself accordingly. His ballet provides intriguing psychological mystery—concerning the complex, ever-shifting relationships among the ballerina, her cavalier, the male soloists, and the female ensemble. It also—in its costumes and many of its gestures and poses—creates an aura of chic that suffuses the stage space in the way a perfume, with its invisible power, affects the atmosphere of a room.

The choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, who succeeded Ashton as director of the Royal Ballet, experimented elsewhere with the notion, shared by many, that the ballet’s original costumes and sets distracted attention from its classical virtues, that it would be better off shorn of this decoration. Granted, André Beaurepaire’s set looks like a trio of heavy architectural elements the stagehands forgot to haul away after an earlier opera performance, while the costumes will not be to everyone’s taste, being deliciously chichi (the women of the ensemble , for example, wear black pillbox hats adorned with insouciant white feathers). I happen to love the costumes, which now have vintage appeal added to their allure, and I believe the production as it stands is all of a piece and shouldn’t be meddled with. Its combination of transient delights and eternal verities seems to me typical of Ashton’s unique turn of mind.

It would be useful to note here that, in a comparison with many a Balanchine ballet set to Stravinsky’s music, Scènes de ballet emerges with honor. The Lincoln Center Festival’s Ashton Celebration has reintroduced the British choreographer to the American audience for dance, an audience for whom Balanchine has long reigned supreme. This renewed interest in Ashton may spark a fruitful exploration of what the 20th century’s two foremost geniuses of classical dance choreography have in common—and what makes each distinctive. One hopes, too, that it will inspire more first-class Ashton productions from our native companies (ABT, this means you!) and more visits from the two Royals. For the last twenty-five years, the dance audience has been complaining about the dearth of new classical choreographers. All the more reason, during these relatively barren times, to cultivate the old ones.

Accompanying Scènes de ballet on the Royal’s mixed-repertory program—along with a cluster of pas de deux that I’ll discuss in my next posting—was Ashton’s 1963 Marguerite and Armand, now used as a vehicle for the company’s ranking guest artist, Sylvie Guillem. After seeing this star turn three years ago, I wrote: “Frederick Ashton created this hallucinatory sketch of Dumas’s Romantic melodrama La Dame aux Camélias in 1963 as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn, whose technical powers, by that time, were at the vanishing point, though she remained a sublime creature of the stage. Guillem took it into her head to treat the ballet as if it had serious substance, working up a character that appeared to be rooted in the close study of novels by the Brontë sisters. This curious, even perverse, undertaking had a certain intellectual appeal—one, however, that had little to do with dancing. Fonteyn, with her innate ballerina instincts, had been content to play herself.” (New York Magazine, August 6, 2001)

Guillem’s current rendition of the role has, strangely, grown even less affecting. It’s so cool and small-scaled, it often seems blank. The ideas that fueled it are still there, but rendered so minutely, it’s hard to see how they could reach spectators in the upper regions of a vast opera house. Even in the privileged close-to seats, opera glasses were required to capture the fine details. And, wrongly, Guillem’s interpretation is stronger in the portrayal of mortal illness—the observations of a body wracked by T.B. might serve as a teaching aid for medical students—than it is in conveying the notion of undying love. I found myself wondering if, to get an appropriately fervid performance, we’ll have to wait until the Royal’s impassioned young Alina Cojocaru is old enough to need the role.

Though I’d vowed not to see this piece a second time in a single week, I’ve succumbed, after all, to the temptation of another look at Anthony Dowell’s interpretation of Armand’s father. The character is repressed and repressive, yet capable in the end of profound empathy. Dowell, former artistic director of the Royal Ballet and one of the supreme danseurs nobles of his generation, packs every restricted gesture with feeling, making it an Ashton cameo worthy of Enigma Variations (and related to Eric Porter’s playing of Soames in the original television version of The Forsyte Saga). Dowell will be onstage again in this role tonight and tomorrow, July 15. On July 16, he will portray one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella; on my list this event is a Don’t Miss.

Today is the first birthday of my SEEING THINGS column in AJ Blogs. My thanks go to Douglas McClennan, whom I call our Ringmaster, for the opportunity to undertake this adventure and for his support in the course of it–and to my readers, for their faithful interest.

© 2004 Tobi Tobias

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