Posted 14 November 2007 - 08:25 AM
Returning to London and Rambert, she learned her choreographic craft on the tiny stage of the Mercury Theatre: people who remember those days speak with particular affection of two ballets she made for the beautiful Pearl Argyle: The Mermaid and Cinderella. Although she did go on to make some plotless pieces - Assembly Ball, to Bizet's Symphony in C, and Veneziana, made for Violetta Elvin at Covent Garden - she was mostly drawn to narrative, with a strong emphasis on characterisation. By all accounts she was a gentle and sensitive person, and her work reflected that.
Almost nothing remains of the 30 or so ballets she made. La Fete Etrange (made for the London Ballet in is much the best known and most widely seen, largely thanks to over 200 performances by the touring Royal Ballet company. (It was also in the repertory of the Scottish Ballet for a time.) It's based on an episode in Alain Fournier's novel Le Grand Meaulnes, but it's almost all atmosphere rather than action, a very delicately drawn encounter between an adolescent boy and a slightly older girl, inconclusive on her side but shattering her relationship with the man she's engaged to. It has a subtle and beautiful decor by Sophie Fedorovitch, and a shifting, haunting score by Gabriel Faure: you come out of it not quite sure exactly what happened but knowing that whatever it was, it changed its characters' lives for ever. Unfortunately this lovely piece dropped out of the repertoire of the 'other' Royal Ballet a long time ago, and it was last seen in a very unsatisfactory revival by the London company in 2005. Badly lit and misguidedly cast, it can't have convinced anybody coming new to it. Monica Mason has said that she is determined to get it right before she retires, and I hope she holds herself to that promise: otherwise the last memory of a Howard ballet will be a very unhappy one.
Of the rest of her output, the two most fascinating to me are both adaptations of stories by David Garnett: Lady into Fox (1939) and The Sailor's Return (1947). Lady into Fox tells of a young married woman whose happiness is destroyed by the pain of seeing a hunted fox; she changes, literally, into a wild vixen who has to seek her freedom. The ballet was originally planned by Antony Tudor; Howard took it over when he abandoned it, intending to dance the leading role herself, but she eventually decided she was too tired to do it properly and gave the part to the 17-year-old and unknown Sally Gilmour, whose astonishingly convincing performance launched her into stardom. David Garnett himself said that she revealed to him just what his heroine really was. Howard did eventually dance the role herself, when the ballet was given by ABT in 1940.
The Sailor's Return was Britain's first multi-act ballet, and had a theme that would still - sadly - resonate today. The sailor hero (played by Walter Gore) marries an African princess and brings her home to England, where race-hatred gradually destroys her. It gave Sally Gilmour another fine role, as well as providing a number of clever cameos, one of them for the young John Gilpin as the Rabbit Catcher. Howard designed the sets and costumes herself, as she often did for her own works.
All three of these works seem to me extraordinarily individual: they don't remind me of anyone else or fall into any obvious classification. Losing them, we lose a unique voice from our history.
Posted 14 November 2007 - 09:04 AM
The most vivid descriptions I've read of Lady into Fox were in Rambert's memoir Quicksilver, which also had a good picture of Gilmour.
I also saw the '05 revival of Fete Etrange at Covent Garden, which was pretty but frigid. Whatever emotions were in the ballet never made it far beyond the proscenium. I hope they try again more successfully.
Posted 14 November 2007 - 09:26 AM
Ballet Theater's performances were 1940, before I was born. However, ABT still includes it in its archive of ballets.
Does anyone know whether it was ever revived at ABT? Or whether it has been performed elsewhere in the past few decades?
Regarding the connection to Tudor: how did Howard's style of story-telling and use of movement compare to his? Did observers make comparisons at the time?
Posted 14 November 2007 - 10:05 AM
Posted 14 November 2007 - 05:49 PM
Thank you for that, Jane. Howard is a choreographer that's interested me, and I think you are exactly right about the danger of losing distinct voices. I may be confusing her with someone else, but did she not do a ballet called "Assembly Ball," using the same Tchaikovsky piece that Balanchine used in "Theme and Variations" (and about the same time)?
Posted 14 November 2007 - 06:53 PM
Jane, your description helps me to experience a ballet I did not see:
In the novel, this is a life-changing experence. The young protagonist tries to return to the place but cannot find it. It's all very Romantic: yearning, obsessing, searching, idealizaing. There's a bit of James (from La Syphide) in the boy's makeup. Augustin was really young; James never grew up.
[I]t's almost all atmosphere rather than action, a very delicately drawn encounter between an adolescent boy and a slightly older girl, inconclusive on her side but shattering her relationship with the man she's engaged to. It has a subtle and beautiful decor by Sophie Fedorovitch, and a shifting, haunting score by Gabriel Faure: you come out of it not quite sure exactly what happened but knowing that whatever it was, it changed its characters' lives for ever
I'm glad Monica Mason has expressed the desire to do this again and, as you say, "get it right." The story deserves a wonderful production (original set?) and the best dancers in the world. Good luck to her.
Posted 14 November 2007 - 08:01 PM
Posted 15 November 2007 - 05:18 AM
The casting was hard to understand: almost all the roles were cast too old and both the Brides - Bussell and Yanowsky - were too tall for the young men cast opposite them. It's interesting you see a likeness to James, as I could easily imagine a Danish cast getting this right.
Posted 15 November 2007 - 05:18 AM
I do hope they give Fete another try, but I'm not certain that they will. There's an interview with Monica Mason at the Ballet association website where it says
The designs used were actually rather handsome Bart. The problem is that Covent Garden seems to swallow or muffle the ballet. I hope Mason can figure out how to compensate for a ballet that was meant for a more intimate house.
'Monica felt that Fete Etrange was not successful: I didnt think we quite brought it off. She had hoped it would be a ballet that could be brought back once more before her time was up but is now not sure. '
There's more details of the nature of the problem with the designs too. NB you need to scroll a long way down, but it is an interesting interview
Posted 15 November 2007 - 08:11 AM
Couldn't this have been dealt with in subsequent performances?
There had been an unfortunate accident with the backcloth. At the technical rehearsal just prior to opening, John B. Read was lighting and Monica noticed four dark blobs on the backcloth. No-one seemed to know where they had come from and the production team wondered if they were going to get away with it which Monica felt they wouldnt: âNo - its blobbyâ. John B. Read was very concerned. More light made the blobs stand out; they tried black gauze to absorb some of the dark shadows cast by the blobs but that didnt work. So lighting-wise the production was dark, when really it needed to be brilliant, just as Sophie Fedorovitchs original design was brilliant. âIt should have glistened, a snow scene in a snow garden. Instead it looked like Heathrow airport in a snow storm.â
Similiarly, aren't there methods of shrinking the visible playing area of a too-large stage?
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