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Joan Acocella's New Yorker piece


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 09:20 AM

I hope anyone interested in, or curious about, Ashton will read this piece:

Life Steps

I found a lot of food for thought here, and much that could be discussed.

Much of the history of modern ballet is the history of adaptations of the standard classroom steps worked out by Marius Petipa and his staff at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet in the late nineteenth century. Michel Fokine softened the steps; Léonide Massine bent them to character study; Balanchine made them sleek and fast and modernist. But those people began studying ballet in childhood. The academic vocabulary was their past; they had to make their own future. Ashton’s story was different. He, too, decided young that he would be a ballet dancer. (He made up his mind at the age of thirteen, at a performance by Anna Pavlova.) ...

With only one exception, that of his English colleague Antony Tudor, no other major ballet choreographer began studying the art at so late an age, and I believe this had a huge effect on Ashton. In his eyes, the academic ballet was in no way old hat, something that needed to be adapted. He had waited for it, longed for it, for years. And so, in his work, the classroom steps are treated like treasured possessions. He can’t stop bringing them out, showing them to us. Temps de flèche, double saut de basque, grand battement en cloche—They are so beautiful, we hear him thinking. Can’t he get just one more in? And he does. No old coot in “Enigma Variations” is so busy with his pipe that he can’t perform a perfect arabesque, atop a bicycle. This is not to say that Ashton didn’t modify the Russian lexicon. He did. He cut it up, elaborated on it. But always, beaming through his personal style, we see the academic steps—isolated, precise, displayed just as themselves, for themselves.



#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 09:39 AM

I'd only like to add at this point that it's a wonderful article. I'm glad Acocella chose to write about the Celebration in this way (as an overview on Ashton rather than in the specifics of the performances), and I'm glad The New Yorker gave her a place to write this sort of piece where general readers will see it.

#3 sandik

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 10:00 AM

I'm glad Acocella chose to write about the Celebration in this way (as an overview on Ashton rather than in the specifics of the performances), and I'm glad The New Yorker gave her a place to write this sort of piece where general readers will see it.

Oh, me too! Croce's writing in the New Yorker did this for many people just learning to see Balanchine's work, and I've been missing that quality lately.

#4 dirac

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 10:25 AM

I agree with all of the above (and I only wish her Balanchine piece had been more like this one). Everyone should read it.

It's also nice that this piece follows the previous one so soon. We don't see enough about dance in The New Yorker any more. (I'm not pointing the finger at Acocella, who's entitled to write about whatever interests her -- just expressing a heartfelt wish. :))

#5 GeorgeB fan

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 01:00 PM

I just finish reading the article and I must say I agree with all of you. It was a wonderful read and informative - I had no ideal that Ashton was basically fired from his post as artistic director of the Royal Ballet even though he was planning to leave the post.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 01:04 PM

I remember it that he once said "I'll retire at 65" and that was seized upon by those who wanted him replaced.

#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 01:36 PM

The section that made me most curious is when Acocella stated that Ashton did not choreograph as many non-narrative ballets as he wished. The statement is a little vague - did Acocella mean that Ashton wished he had done more in place of the narrative works (she states that de Valois steered him towards story ballets) or that he just wished he had made more non-narrative works as well? If the former, is that documented?

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 02:26 PM

Leigh, I can't give a cite, but I think Acocella may be referring to statements in Kavanaugh's book as well as several late-in-life interviews Ashton gave. (I have a vague memory of a long conversation with Alastair Macauley published just a year or two before his death where he was setting the record straight about things -- for instance, yes, he did use quotes from Pavlova's ballets in several of his, but it wasn't out of a near-religious, unshaken reverence for Pavlova, etc.)

#9 sandik

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Posted 27 July 2004 - 07:38 AM

I think that she's gotten at a very important element in Ashton's choreography with her observations about his love of vocabulary. Right now, between the streamilined power of the Balanchine tradition and the raw physicality of much contemporary dance, it's sometimes hard to recognize other kinds of viruosity, but Ashton's work epitomizes a certain kind of valorous complexity for me.

Several years ago, I watched a bobbin lace master at work. It's an intriguing practice where you twist and knot multiple threads into patterns, rather like braiding on steroids. The fingers twist furiously around each other while the wooden bobbins clink together gently, until suddenly all movement stops, and then the lacemaker places a drawing pin in the knot, quick and precise, and the phrase starts again. It occured to me just recently that on the same trip I got to see Ashton's Scenes de Ballet, and that they were very much the same kind of experience.

#10 Michael

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Posted 27 July 2004 - 08:13 AM

Two thoughts --

First, I was struck by how brilliantly Ashton uses the ballet vocabulary to convey dramatic action in a sort of heiroglyph form and I thought that the description of Cojocaru's manege of interlaced chainee and piquee turns, while "infelicitous" as Leigh said, was getting at that. Other more basic examples would be the use of the simple relevee, when Cinderella goes to her mother's portrait and raises her arms to it while on point in Act I, to express her simple emotional attitude. A ballet motion given full and perfect dramatic meaning. Or Cinderella's first dance with the broom, with its repeated ballonnees with a flexed foot, imitating what the dancing master had done, etc. Ashton is amazing in this way, no choreographer whom I know has ever expressed dramatic meaning in such a pure way by, as it were, embodying it in the use of the classical lexicon. So in all, I think Accocella was getting at a most central point.

Second, that her attribution of this to the fact that Ashton came to the ballet late is purely intuitive on her part. It's an interesting stab to connect that as causation for this trait. But personally, I'm not sure and how could anyone be sure? (It was, though, from the writer's point of view, an interesting seguay, or device, to include that bit of biography in the article, and to transition to her analysis of that prime quality in his work).

#11 Paul Parish

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 08:15 AM

It's a wonderful article....She really has some deep insight -- I especially appreciate the analysis of Cinderella's circles of the stage, and the circles around the prince -- she "dances rings around him," which demonstrates her seovereignty in proverbial erms and shows she's fit to be queen.

Small quetoin -- where did Leigh say the manege was infelicitous, and why? Leigh, darling, have you seen Sibley do it? I ask because I'm not only dazzled by it, I'm struck by the way she looks BACK at the prince on certain piques, which makes it such a private and delicate thing, like in the world of Apu when his bride to be steals glances at him while mostly keeping her glance on the floor, as is prescribed by law for good girls.... What more natural that she would WANT to look, and have to staeal glances -- but to do that on a manege of turns!!!! That's really Ashtonian.....

#12 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 08:56 AM

Hello, hello!

Oh no, the manege isn't infelicitous! It is grueling as Sibley says in an interview, in fact Cojocaru lost her spot completely and looked like she had to fight for control at the very end almost in an echo of Sibley's words elsewhere.

There's a post of mine that's not in this thread where I referred to Acocella's metaphor of the dog urinating as infelicitous (actually, in defense of it because the metaphor was thought of as worse).

Sorry for the lost context!

#13 atm711

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 11:10 AM

I particularly welcomed the part about the late start of Ashton and Tudor. They were born at the right time---with their lack of strong technical skills they would never have made it into one of today's companies, and think of what would have been lost ---and what is more than likely being lost today.

#14 Paul Parish

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Posted 28 July 2004 - 02:34 PM

thanks, Leigh -- I get it now --

though I DO buy Accella's metaphor -- in fact, I don't even think of it as a metaphor; human beings mark their territory with spilled staining liquids -- the noble Greeks poured libations of wine to do pretty much the same thing that dogs do, to mark the boundaries of their territory, and danced things out also to mark their boundaries. Robert Frost's great poem mending wall echoes some really old traditions of walking along a border to repair it "Good fences make good neighbors"....

in any case, Leigh, I want to rezd everything you have to say abut Cinerella, a\so please point me to that thread....


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