Leigh Witchel

Who is an "Ashtonian" dancer today?

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It would be so much easier to answer this question if one could just say 'look at this - and now this - see the difference?' - the best demonstration of this I ever saw was in Ondine one season when Johan Kobborg danced the leading role in the last act divertissement, probably as well technically as it's ever been done, but dancing it as a generic showpiece, and then Ricardo Cervera did it in the second cast and it looked totally different, absolutely unmistakeably by Ashton and full of wit and character. I think it's very sad that Cervera has been so underused, but good news that he's now starting to work as a coach/repetiteur in the Ashton repertoire.

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I agree that it is sad that Cervera has been so underused.But it is also sad from the audience's point of view that dancers are cast in roles for which they are clearly unsuited simply because they are principals and have a following.I think that the audience is entitled to expect that the Royal Ballet will put on the best casts that it can for each type of ballet that it stages. The fact that it does not always do so is not so much of a problem for regular repertory pieces such as Manon but is little short of disastrous when works that are performed infrequently are cast in that way. Although a few of Ashton's works have a secure toehold in the repertory the majority do not and so the decision to treat Scenes and Symphonic as training opportunities has almost certainly done more harm than good both for the dancers and audiences. If Kevin O'Hare has finally recognised the need for the company to dance more Ashton then he should have scheduled pieces like Facade and Les Patineurs and scheduled Monotones for revival.

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Hi -

Odd to pop your head back into a thread after a decade, but I've been thinking about this a lot and I feel as if I only had some answer to this last year.

It wasn't a dancer that showed me, but staging - as with the Ashton Festival at Lincoln Center in '04. And this time, the '14 Ashton Festival put on by Sarasota Ballet. Margaret Barbieri and Iain Webb's settings were so specific that it was clear - at least from their eyes - what makes a ballet an Ashton ballet.

Musicality: Ashton's musicality is melodic. In one of the first entrances of a quartet of chic ladies in Scenes de Ballets, they hop forward and in exactly on the melodic line. You can practically hear Ashton singing it as he demonstrated. You could see that in all the ballets from Birthday Offering through Les Illuminations.

Speed: We love to think of this as the province of Balanchine. That's parochialism. Ashton is blisteringly quick.

Footwork: Ashtonian footwork is fast and under the body. The point of pointework isn't as much to travel (think of Balanchine's female duet in Agon) as to show detail work - and also states of emotion. When an Ashton ballerina gets lifted doing a battement serre; it's the fluttering of her heart.

Narrative: Search on Youtube for Lynn Seymour doing A Month in the Country and look at the first variation. It isn't a variation - it's a monologue where she's joking, or flirting. No step is without dramatic intent and to divide an Ashton ballet into choreography and acting is a mistake. They happen at the same time.

Epaulement: This is the big one. Ashton epaulement is classical-plus. A cambre back goes back, and then more back for a greater, exaggerated sweep. A bend to the side is all the way to the side. A great place to look for this is the opening entrance of the couples in Birthday Offering. As one of Sarasota's dancers, Daniel Pratt, joked to me in an imitation of Barbieri on the mike during a stage rehearsal. "DANIEL PRATT! More body!"

It would be harmful to compare Sarasota to the Royal - but it did a phenomenal job for what it is. And what a joy it was to look at four days of Ashton so clearly presented that for the first time in 20 years, I felt I could finally say, "THAT'S Ashton style!"

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Well, thank you for popping back in, Leigh! That's a mighty helpful summary, especially for those of us that don't get to see as much live Ashton as we would if this were the best of all possible worlds.

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One more thing to add - Ashton style seems closely related to Ceccheti training. He didn't just dream it up out of thin air. It came from the training he received and the classes he took.

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One more thing to add - Ashton style seems closely related to Ceccheti training. He didn't just dream it up out of thin air. It came from the training he received and the classes he took.

As I understand it, that is a bingo observation!

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The real difference between the two companies is that for Barbieri and Webb at Sarasota reviving Ashton's works is a labour of love while for the current management team at Covent Garden it appears to be a chore. Last year we were given Rhapsody and The Dream. I am not convinced that we would have seen either of them if the company had not been going to Moscow.The truth is that O'Hare seems to be more concerned with "refreshing" the repertory than he is with looking after Ashton's works. MacMillan's works have not suffered as much as Ashton's from poor casting decisions probably because the rights owner is a force to be reckoned with; the fact that she could withdraw the performance rights must be a powerful incentive to stay on the straight and narrow.

Until last June I would have said that BRB was a dependable custodian of Ashton's works now I am not so sure.In October I went to a screening of Ashton's ballets which included Les Rendezvous filmed in 1962 and A Month in the Country filmed in 1978. The recording from 1962 was particularly interesting as I had been to Birmingham in June to see BRB in their Ashton mixed bill. The programme included two ballets with roles created by Markova, Les Rendezvous where the ballerina's role was clearly influenced by the Romantic style of Giselle, which she had been learning and Facade an earlier work where her role was reliant on her known technical skills and was, if anything, about confounding expectations.I saw two casts.At one performance the female lead had all the Romantic softness required in Les Rendezvous but none of the steel required to bring off the Facade role successfully at the other performance the dancer cast was clearly more of a Myrthe than a Giselle; she was fine in Facade but unsuited to the ballerina role in Les Rendezvous. The films were a revelation of how much the Ashton style has changed over the years. Even allowing for the studio conditions Les Rendezvous as danced by Brian Shaw and Doreen Wells as the lead couple with Petrus Bosman, Merle Park and Graham Usher in the pas de trois was so very fast and light. It looked completely different from what is currently served up under the title of Les Rendezvous and that's merely a comment on the dancing. The revised designs show a complete lack of concern for the ballet's setting and floor plan. But that is another story.

There are some good Ashton dancers at Covent Garden but they are few in number and if there is a choice between casting one of them or a principal the principal, however unsuitable for the role, will be cast. How else can you explain the decision to cast Golding as Oberon in the Dream last year except that the management thought that it was more important to show a newly signed principal than to cast a dancer who would be able to perform the role in the appropriate style.

You will have an opportunity to learn about Mr O'Hare's taste and judgment when the Royal Ballet visits you in the summer.It will be interesting to hear your comments on his choice of repertory and the direction in which he means to lead the company. What you think of the company's ability to dance Ashton will depend very much on the casting decisions which he makes.Every new director brings the possibility of change to repertory, dancers and style not all of which are intended not all of which are necessarily detrimental.But it is very easy to overlook what you have grown up with

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Logan Learned and several other Sarasota Ballet soloists certainly have grown into the Ashtonian mold. Looking forward to seeing them soon in the long-awaited revival of complete JAZZ CALENDAR (Feb 27-28).

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I agree with Ashton fan regarding the casting of RB principals irrespective of their suitability, but the practice has been going on since Anthony Dowell was director and Monica Mason followed that practice. Of course the short-lived director who had a brief tenure between those two started casting on merit and look what happened to him.

Mr O'Hare would be wise not to rock the RB casting boat if he wants to keep his job.

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I have no doubt that a close study of the rather patchy contents of the Royal Ballet's performance archive on the Opera House website would show that the Ashton casting rot set in at the time that Somes "retired" as repetiteur. I recall plenty of occasions during Dowell's directorship when hopes would be raised by the announcements of programmes only to be dashed when the casting was announced.The result was that on those nights, when the casting was half decent, the "regulars" would all turn up at the house in a sort of Ashton reunion.

The current position is worse because during Dowell's time, although some of his casting decisions had more to do with keeping senior dancers happy than their suitability for particular roles, some works such as Scenes and Symphonic took longer to fall into the hands of dancers for whom the style was alien. During Dowell's directorship.there were plenty of dancers in the company who had worked with Ashton and who had the style in their bones; now the only two that come to mind are the character principals Rosato and McGorian.

That is not to say that the company could not mount a very successful Ashton evening.The last Ashton mixed bill would have provided a series of exemplary performances if the first night cast for Symphonic had been retained for the entire run, if Pajdack had danced all the performances of Brahms Waltzes and only Month had been shown with two casts.I was amazed that O'Hare had put Scenes de Ballet on the same programme, because in the past the main male role in Scenes was usually taken by a dancer who took the Brian Shaw role in Symphonic. If it was intended to display the company's strength it did not work. It merely served to show how little the management understood about the practicalities of casting.But then what do I know? The worst example of miscasting that I can think of was the double cast of Birthday Offering where only Nunez and a couple of other dancers deserved to be on the stage. I thought at the time that if Mason had really wanted to show two casts she should have let Nunez lead a cast of some of the younger dancers who might at least have been prepared and/or able to dance in the required style. .

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Alicia Markova summed up the essence of Ashton's choreographic style in a short interview that was shown in a tribute broadcast by the BBC at the time of Ashton's death. She had danced with Ashton and had danced in a great deal of his choreography both on the commercial stage and in his early ballets for Rambert and the ad hoc organisations that provided opportunities for dancers to appear in ballets in their spare time. She was the ballerina of the Vic Wells ballet in its earliest years.She was in the original cast of Facade, Les Rendezvous which are revived from time to time and Foyer de Danse which may, or may not , be capable of revival when Mr Webb at Sarasota has time.

Markova was in a better position than most to identify the strongest influences on Ashton's choreography.Born in 1910 and working in the Diaghilev company as a child, Markova was exceptionally well placed to know and recognise the French and Italian schools in the choreography that she had danced in her Diaghilev years. She was fully aware of the influence that Cecchetti had on that company's choreographers and the impact that he had on the way that the Diaghilev company danced.She would have known that Ashton began his training with Massine who was an ardent follower of Cecchetti and that when Massine left London he had gone to study with Rambert another follower of Cecchetti. She was also aware of the non ballet influences on Ashton's choreography. Her Ashton in a nutshell definition of his style was that it was Cecchetti below the waist and Duncan above the waist. She singled out his time working in the commercial theatre as the source of his impeccable theatrical timing and thought that working with black dancers like Buddy Barclay had been important.

As far as the Royal Ballet is concerned we shall see at the beginning of next season just how much of an Ashton dancer Hayward really is when she dances Lise. In the meantime those of you who are interested in what Ashton should look like in performance could do a lot worse than undertake a short compare and contrast exercise by looking at two recordings of La Valse one made in the early 1960's and a short excerpt of one filmed very recently. Both can be found on Youtube. The earlier recording can be found on a recording of a mixed programme which begins with Les Sylphides and ends with Aurora's Wedding La Valse starts at about 38 minutes into the recording. The clouds and the lack of distinct images at the beginning of the ballet are deliberate and reflect the composer's directions.

The ballet was made for La Scala in 1958 and entered the Royal Ballet's repertory a few years later. This, it seems to me, deals with the explanation that is often given for the company's failures with the founder choreographer's works which is that they are too closely connected to their original dancers for subsequent casts to be able to do them full justice. An exceptionally lame excuse as if other choreographers took no account of the dancers on whom they created their ballets. The recent performance appears in full on the DVD An Ashton Celebration. A fifty six second excerpt can be found on Youtube and this may be enough for this exercise.When watching these two accounts ask which of the two versions most closely fits the quotation that Ravel chose to write on his score "We were all dancing on the edge of a volcano".

If you want an example of "a distillation of Ashton's style" see if you can find Birthday Offering with Collier and Dowell in the leads filmed in 1986 as part of the "Fanfare for Elizabeth" Gala. It is not a full account of the ballet, only excerpts, but the the range of upper body movement demanded of dancers of both sexes may come as something of a revelation to those who have seen more recent performances of excerpts from this work.

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A very interesting comparison in the case of La Valse -- thank you. Worth more time than I was able to give it this week (mid-summer work crisis) but as you indicate just a minute or two does give at least a flavor.

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. She was also aware of the non ballet influences on Ashton's choreography. Her Ashton in a nutshell definition of his style was that it was Cecchetti below the waist and Duncan above the waist...............

Thank you for that nifty quote from Markova, which I hadn't come across before.

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I love the Markova quote, too. :)

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If you want to do some more investigation of Ashton's style then you could try comparing and contrasting Five Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan as danced by Lynn Seymour on whom it was created and then as performed by Tamara Rojo and White Monotones as danced by Derman, Silver and Deane and the recent recording on the Ashton Celebration DVD.

As far as Five Waltzes is concerned it started life as a single waltz danced at a gala. Ashton added to it to create what we see today. In its current form it was first shown at a performance celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Rambert company and as such was an extraordinarily thoughtful gift as Rambert had been a devotee of Duncan and had, for a time, when she lived in Paris given Duncan style recitals. Marie Rambert was given a preview of the work at the end of which she is said to have burst into tears and said words to the effect of that's what it was like. Now with the best will in the world I can't see anyone saying that about Rojo's performance it is just too studied, too careful and lacking in any apparent spontaneity.The pauses between the waltzes for acting and self assessment do nothing for the piece. As danced by Seymour it is a fascinating piece and it is as danced by other dancers such as Belinda Hatley who dance it rather than "acting" it. BRB have performed it on the same bill as Dante Sonata which I have no doubt made Dante Sonata make great sense in the context of Ashton's output as a whole.

As far as white Monotones is concerned I am not suggesting that the Derman cast was perfect. At the time they danced it I thought it a second rate cast and it reveals some of the problems that the company was beginning to experience. Deane is far too self contained and he sags. The reason that you should watch it is because it is danced as a continuous flow of movement rather than being "freeze framed". The comment, I believe by Bruce Sansom, about Monotones 2 that you had to choose points during the performance to stop imperceptibly so that the audience could catch up makes sense in the context of the earlier recording dating from the late 1970's. It makes no sense in the context of the modern recording which turns it into a ballet in which the dancers move from one pose to the next, freeze frame the pose, and move on.

The company's current performance style is a subtle combination of changes in teaching methods at the school during the past thirty years, the company's recruitment and promotion practices and above all its programming and casting decisions over that time. Just as Balanchine's company became Balanchine dancers by dancing his ballets the Royal Ballet became a company with a unified style by dancing Ashton's ballets. When his ballets ceased to be central to the company's repertory it had a profound effect on what the company looked like in the performance of its entire repertory. Ashton's choreography is technically very demanding, often extremely exposed and generally provides real opportunities for the entire cast to dance. MacMillan's full length works provide juicy roles for the main characters, and sometimes give opportunities to fudge the steps and cover weaknesses by emoting, they often leave the members of the corps doing little more than being animated stage decorations each with their own backstory.

This season Ashton's works have been given almost as much stage time as MacMillan's. In addition we are now seeing the effects of Gailene Stock's directorship of the Royal Ballet School in the quality of the dancers who are now being recruited by the company some of whom have had all their training at the school. As far as the future of the Ashton repertory and style at the Royal Ballet is concerned only time will tell.

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As far as Five Waltzes is concerned it started life as a single waltz danced at a gala. Ashton added to it to create what we see today. In its current form it was first shown at a performance celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Rambert company and as such was an extraordinarily thoughtful gift as Rambert had been a devotee of Duncan and had, for a time, when she lived in Paris given Duncan style recitals. Marie Rambert was given a preview of the work at the end of which she is said to have burst into tears and said words to the effect of that's what it was like. Now with the best will in the world I can't see anyone saying that about Rojo's performance it is just too studied, too careful and lacking in any apparent spontaneity.The pauses between the waltzes for acting and self assessment do nothing for the piece. As danced by Seymour it is a fascinating piece and it is as danced by other dancers such as Belinda Hatley who dance it rather than "acting" it. BRB have performed it on the same bill as Dante Sonata which I have no doubt made Dante Sonata make great sense in the context of Ashton's output as a whole.

In the case of this work I think it's as much about the source of the inspiration (Duncan) as much as it is about Ashton style. From all we understand, Duncan was such a distinctive performer, it's incredibly difficult to bring that essence to a performance, whether you were one of her own Isadorables, or someone working with an hommage like the Ashton here.

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I agree that Five Brahms Waltzes is as much about Duncan as it is about Ashton's style but it seems to me that Rojo's performance of the piece reveals the same problems that I see in the modern version of Monotones 2 and in other Ashton works in performance. A dancer or dancers who can not or are not prepared to dance in what appears to be a continuous flow of movement.In both cases I am left fully aware of the component parts of the two ballets but with little or no idea of the structure of the pieces in their entirety because the performers have chosen to break them up. This is the complete reverse of how they should be performed and what the audience should be aware of in performance. It is the overall effect of the choreography which matters rather than its component parts.

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