Jump to content


This site uses cookies. By using this site, you agree to accept cookies, unless you've opted out. (US government web page with instructions to opt out: http://www.usa.gov/optout-instructions.shtml)

How did Ashton teach his ballets?


  • Please log in to reply
11 replies to this topic

#1 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 27 May 2003 - 10:03 AM

I have a question for anyone out there who's either participated or observed the setting (and re-setting) of Ashton's work.

How did he teach the steps - particularly how he showed the musicality he wanted? I have heard he never counted, but did he speak the steps, sing them in rhythm, use made-up rhymes or syllables to demonstrate, any or all of the above at different times (or something else entirely)?

I'm trying to delve further into his musicality and this would answer a lot of questions.

#2 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,271 posts

Posted 27 May 2003 - 10:07 AM

I asked Kronstam this when I talked with him about "Romeo and Juliet" and he said that Ashton showed the steps and did not use counts. "He didn't care whether you were on 1 or 4, as long as it was on the music." That was his only comment in answer to a question about Ashton's musicality. (Like every dancer I've ever read/heard on the subject, he felt that Ashton was extremely musical.)

I'd be interested in learning more about this, too -- Jane, Alymer? Anyone else?

#3 grace

grace

    Silver Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 584 posts

Posted 27 May 2003 - 05:55 PM

i only worked with him when he was very old, and of course his works for the RB were taught by the ballet mistress and/or notators, then ashton only came in at the end to proffer (or not) his seal of approval. he certainly has a way of conjuring up steps, in the imagination, just through upper-body movement..perhaps one might liken it to (effete) conducting! :)

#4 glebb

glebb

    Gold Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 807 posts

Posted 28 May 2003 - 03:39 AM

I have never worked with Ashton himself, but I have worked with Michael Somes, Brian Shaw, Alexander Grant, Christopher Newton, John Taras, Faith Worth (choreologist), and the swan-like Lynn Wallis.

Somes-LES PATINEURS, Shaw-LES PATINEURS, Grant-THE DREAM, LA FILLE MAL GARDEE, Newton-A WEDDING BOUQUET, John Taras- ILLUMINATIONS, and Wallis-MONOTONES I & II all went in and out of counting music. I had the feeling that they could but didn't feel the need to count everything. As you said Leigh, they demonstrated, spoke, hummed and pounded out rhythms. I particularly remember receiving wonderful suggestions through imagery from Michael Somes.

Faith Worth- FACADE, THE DREAM, JAZZ CALENDAR, LA FILLE MAL GARDEE taught every count from her Bennesh Notation Score.

#5 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 29 May 2003 - 12:00 AM

Glebb - that's what I was hoping to have answered. When watching Fille, it kept seeming to me that the musicality was at its clearest if you kept a physical rhythm for the steps (eg, thinking "pas de bourree, pas de bourree, step up, ballone" or whatever sounds you want in rhythm) instead of trying to count them. Working that way in my head, the quick grace-noted steps seemed quite clear. About the clearest example of this I can give is the clog dance for the Widow Simone.

How did you think about the musicality of the steps when you danced it? (I'm sure differently for different things)

I'd also love to hear from any other sources on this.

#6 glebb

glebb

    Gold Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 807 posts

Posted 29 May 2003 - 04:21 AM

I know you are interested in hearing from others but I would like to say one more thing. I believe that in Ashton and Balanchine ballets the choreography is the definitive interpretation of the music. The steps are inevitable. Therefore, one does not need to count though Stravinsky might be the exception.

#7 mbjerk

mbjerk

    Senior Member

  • Moderators
  • PipPipPip
  • 143 posts

Posted 02 June 2003 - 02:19 PM

I agree totally with glebb re: Ashton and Balanchine defining the music. For me, when I stage ballets counting is useful with a corps in order to gain a similar understanding of the musical rhytym for the choreography. It is only the first step! The next is to sing the music and finally to add the phrasing and volume changes to bring out the choreographic intentions, either as a story or an illustration of the music (hopefully both as I think the abstract ballets express a human emotion). Even when I rehearse the corps in ballets, each person must take on the responsibilty for musical expression and understanding.

I remember working with Natalia Spitsnaya (Kirov) on Swan in Korea. She sang everything and I counted when we worked on the corps. By the end of the rehearsal period, I was singing and she was counting! Both are tools for differing phases of understanding and it depends on where the dancers are.

#8 Jane Simpson

Jane Simpson

    Gold Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 952 posts

Posted 04 June 2003 - 10:20 AM

Leigh, I never had the good fortune to see Ashton making or teaching one of his ballets, but I've been looking to see what I could find in various books. It's difficult - many people talk about working with him, but it's almost invariably in terms of creating the movement rather than its relationship to the music.

A couple of things from David Vaughan:

"Ashton, unlike Balanchine, does not read a score nor play an instrument, but he does familiarise himself thoroughly with the music and then relies on the collaboration of the arranger and/or rehearsal pianist to help him with such technical analysis as may be necessary, such as breaking the music down into counts for the dancers." - which implies that he did occasionally give counts - maybe to the corps de ballet, perhaps?

"The quality of the choreography depends not simply on the nature of the material the dancers give him but on their ability to enter into this symbiotic relationship with him, and to share his intuitive response to the music. Very often, the fitting of the dance to the musical phrase is done afterwards, by further adjustment, and for this reason the relation between the two is something that has to be felt by the dancers rather than analysed. When I asked [a dancer] how Ashton fits the movements to the music, he said, 'If I knew that, we could all be choreographers'."
- so no counting there, obviously.

The book Following Sir Fred's Steps, papers and transcripts of discussions from the Ashton Conference in 1994, has lots of interesting insights. Philip Gammon, who worked as rehearsal pianist with Ashton, says "He never actually wanted to work out counts as such, as so many choreographers like to do. Kenneth MacMillan, for instance, would always want me to work out the dancers' counts before he even started to create the choreography."

And there's a very interesting bit from Lesley Collier, talking about the creation of Rhapsody: she says she found learning the pas de deux very difficult, as Baryshnikov heard the music quite differently from either her or Ashton, and Ashton let him do it his way - she only finally enjoyed dancing it when Dowell took over the leading role and "it became a 'Fred' ballet for me, and it was quite wonderful".

#9 Funny Face

Funny Face

    Senior Member

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPip
  • 233 posts

Posted 30 July 2003 - 02:45 PM

Hello all. The creative process employed by Frederick Ashton, whom Margot Fonteyn deemed "the greatest choreographer of our time," is discussed at length in "Book III -- Choreography" of Agnes De Mille's "The Book of the Dance." This segment of the book not only discusses the general process of choreography, but gives a comprehensive overview of the method used by virtually every choreographer of renown (up to that time -- no mention yet of Bob Fosse -- shucks!). It's must reading for both neophytes and veterans of choreography. There are some wonderful descriptions of the various idiosyncracies of choreographers, many of whom shared the unfortunate trait of suffering terrible anxiety prior to the first rehearsal with the dancers -- to the point of becoming physically ill. Ashton was one of those afflicted in this way. Odd to think that this individual who flew fighter planes in World War II could be intimidated to that extent in the ballet studio.

I particularly appreciated the segment on George Balanchine. The rehearsal studio seems to come to life while you are reading how this man could apparently choreograph and rehearse in the middle of a gale storm. You can really imagine the dancers drinking coffee, smoking, knitting, stretching, joking, etc., while he remained focused and in good humor throughout. I think of all the choreographers discussed in De Mille's work, I enjoyed reading about his creative style the most -- e.g., that when he ran out of ideas/steam, he simply let the dancers go for the day rather than waste anyone's time, and that he didn't mind throwing out everything he'd done previously and starting all over again. I don't want to digress too much, but I particularly enjoyed reading in other sources about how Jacques D'Amboise was influenced as a choreographer by Balanchine -- how one imparted his sense of patience and understanding to the next generation.

Edited by Funny Face, 30 July 2003 - 07:04 PM.


#10 Funny Face

Funny Face

    Senior Member

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPip
  • 233 posts

Posted 30 July 2003 - 02:58 PM

This is just a p.s. regarding the need to count with Stravinsky. I studied this past year with a former member of the Joffrey who was a member of the company when "Rite of Spring" was resurrected. Because the current company was coming to our city to give a performance of, among others, "Rite of Spring," this teacher gave a special lecture/dem on the process of learning this work. He would show a segment of the piece on video, then have us gather in a circle to learn the same segment to very exact counts. While we were all having a lot of fun, this was, at the same time, no picnic. He had some wonderfully funny anecdotes -- that he physically demonstrated -- about how what a mess a dancer was in if he/she got off count at all, and how disappointed the rest of the company was in you if you lost focus and messed up. When you see the natives doing that rather hunched over stomping, it is actually anything but simple. Of course, with all of this in mind, we were very alert when watching the newest generation of the company perform.

#11 grace

grace

    Silver Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 584 posts

Posted 30 July 2003 - 04:08 PM

funny face: i am thrilled to see that you have joined us, as i know what interesting and valuable posts you make. i look forward to your company in the TEACHERS forum, especially... :wink:

#12 innopac

innopac

    Gold Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 786 posts

Posted 07 September 2009 - 02:05 PM

A couple of things from David Vaughan:

"The quality of the choreography depends not simply on the nature of the material the dancers give him but on their ability to enter into this symbiotic relationship with him, and to share his intuitive response to the music. Very often, the fitting of the dance to the musical phrase is done afterwards, by further adjustment, and for this reason the relation between the two is something that has to be felt by the dancers rather than analysed. When I asked [a dancer] how Ashton fits the movements to the music, he said, 'If I knew that, we could all be choreographers'."
- so no counting there, obviously.


Here is something Robert Helpmann wrote about Ashton. This is from Helpmann's 'The Choreographer at Work', n.p., n.d. [RBS Archives.]

[Ashton] plans his ballets very little beforehand. They grow directly out of rehearsal and the experimental use of the dancers at his disposal. This method is tiring for the dancers but infinitely rewarding in the insight it gives into a great choreographer’s process of creation.... Very often he will ask the dancers themselves to dance extemporal to the music trying to express in their movement the feeling and plastic response the music arouses in them. Occasionally one of these movements will give him the key to the dance he wishes to create. More often, as he watches, the realisation that there is something wrong with the dancers’ reaction will suddenly give spurt to his own inspiration. And from this flash of inspiration a whole passage of dance exquisitely reflecting the music perfect in its sculptural form will emerge.

Robert Helpmann: A Servant of Art by Anna Bemrose (2008) page 61




0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users


Help support Ballet Alert! and Ballet Talk for Dancers year round by using this search box for your amazon.com purchases (adblockers may block display):