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Ashton's version of "La Valse"how does it compare to Balanchine and others?


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#1 bart

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Posted 12 July 2008 - 06:16 PM

I just had the chance to see (only once! with no re-wind :thumbsup: ) the Royal Ballet performing the last five minutes or so of Ashton's version of the Ravel "La Valse." I'm more familiar with the Balanchine choreography to the same music. Though both choreographers capture the mounting sense of abandon, desperation, and danger in the score, I was most struck by how different the two ballets are.

Ashton's takes place in a vast, brilliantly lighted ballroom draped in white satin. Four red-clad footmen stand at the back holding candelabra. They never move. There are 3 lead couples and what seem to be about 20 or more additdional couples. All the women wear long multilayered, gauze tutus in shades of rose, grey, yellow, etc. The men wear tails from a period that seems to be the 1830s. At times, the movement parallels the music (volume, tempo, etc.) in an almost literal, step-for-note fashion. The patterns and lines are surprisingly formal and geometric, even when the dancers seem to be losing their battle to remain lyrical.

Is this ballet still performed by the Royal? Has anyone seen it on stage and in full? What do you think? And -- if you've seen both versions -- whose do you prefer, Ashton's or Balanchine's?

#2 papeetepatrick

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Posted 12 July 2008 - 06:57 PM

This is on 'An Evening with the Royal Ballet'. I adore it, and on discovering it around the same time I joined BT, I have watched it about 20 times. I'd seen Balanchine's once, with a superb performance by Farrell. That one also includes the 'Valses Nobles et Sentimentales', as well as 'La Valse' (the Ashton is only 'La Valse') and those were some of the first discussions I had here and queries of many people. Jane Simpson said some things about it, including that there is also a MacMillan 'La Valse', which I've not seen. The Farrell performance was the most brilliant of anything I ever saw her in, but I can't remember the rest of it that well. I love the relaxed tempo of the Ashton, all that wonderful British sense of comfort with a sense of Proust 'lost-memory' to it, because they whirl in as if from a dream and at the end disappear back into it. The costumes are so tasty, those men's costumes with the tails are especially out of sight--well beyond dashing. And the sets in that old film are so 50s you can't believe it, all those ice cream colours that suggest that rambling old hotels by the sea in England or France with giant dining rooms and ballrooms, etc., that one has read about. For us rococo types, I guess. I'd like to know how productions of it at the Royal have evolved over the years.

#3 kfw

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Posted 12 July 2008 - 07:24 PM

The Royal brought it to Washington in 2006 and I was disappointed on first sight, although I've grown to love the filmed version. I still find Balanchine's conception, with its central characters, far more dramatic and moving.

#4 bart

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Posted 13 July 2008 - 05:15 PM

Patrick, thanks for the info. I've ordered it from Amazon and will be looking at it closely. It's a shame that -- once again ! -- there is no filmed Balanchine version commercially available for comparison. You're right about the 50s look: the over-lighting and in-your-face color. Very MGM musical? Anyway, it's fun.

kfw, I agree with you about the Balanchine. You've been able to see both a recent live performance and the older film. Is the Royal still dancing this much as they did when the film?

I would love to hear more thoughts about the Ashton version, especially from those who ahve also seen the Balanchine.

La Valse -- as distinct from Valses nobles et sentimentales -- is a piece which makes an impact by means of sudden, dramatic contrasts. It presents us with a conventional, formal, quite beautiful elements evoking an elegant ball, and then sets about destroying them, exploding suddenly and unpredictably into wildness, loudness, distortion, excess.

I've now been able to see three quite different choreographers addressing this music: Balanchine (which I first saw in the early 60s); Pascal Rioult's modern dance version, which I saw in several performances this season and last; and now this brief glimpse of Ashton.

I was very taken by the Pascal Rioult's modern dance version, Wien, which uses only "La Valse." Of the three, Rioult responds most directly to the unpredictability of the piece, the disintegrative elements in the waltz. Although his dancers perform, at times, their own version of courtly dances, they also explode into violence, collapse to the floor, select and reject their partners impulsively, even callously.

Ashton's version sticks quick tightly to the conventions of a well-bred ballroom. When the music calls for outbursts or wildness, his dancers do not collapse, attack or fall apart. They create drama by leaping higher or in unexpected directions, twisting a bit more, exagerrating their port de bras, mvoing faster and reaching outward more dramatically. At the end, all the dancers re-form into parallel lines facing the audience, as though trying desperately to reasssert order and convention. The women swing their arms and agitate their skirts. It's powerful and disturbing precisely because they seem to be unable to go further, as though wishing desparately for a return to order and restraint.

Or am I completely missing the point????? :clapping: :foot:

#5 Hans

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Posted 14 July 2008 - 08:38 AM

I've seen the Ashton on video and the Balanchine live several times (with, I think, Rachel Rutherford as the principal woman) so this may be comparing apples to oranges, but I find Balanchine's treatment heavy-handed and overly literal, with its Death character and onstage costume change. It comes across to me as a 19C lesson about "morality." Ashton's version is more what I would have expected from Balanchine--it conveys the desperation and sense of "dancing on the edge of a volcano" with delicacy and refinement--and without resorting to characters and a plot.

#6 EAW

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Posted 14 July 2008 - 09:07 AM

I've seen the Ashton on video and the Balanchine live several times (with, I think, Rachel Rutherford as the principal woman) so this may be comparing apples to oranges, but I find Balanchine's treatment heavy-handed and overly literal, with its Death character and onstage costume change. It comes across to me as a 19C lesson about "morality." Ashton's version is more what I would have expected from Balanchine--it conveys the desperation and sense of "dancing on the edge of a volcano" with delicacy and refinement--and without resorting to characters and a plot.


I couldn't disagree more. Since Balanchine so seldom gave us "characters and a plot," as you say, when he did he had powerful reasons for doing so. I've also seen the Ashton only on video, but for me it was rather too delicate and refined --not much sense of danger or desperation at all. Balanchine's brilliant use of the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales as a prelude to the actual La Valse creates a whole world of decadent, heartless flirtation out of which the ballet's sinister happenings naturally follow. I wouldn't call La Valse one of Balanchine's greatest works, but it perfectly draws out and dramatizes the woozy, dangerous eroticism in Ravel's music.

#7 papeetepatrick

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Posted 14 July 2008 - 09:13 AM

the 50s look: the over-lighting and in-your-face color. Very MGM musical? Anyway, it's fun.


Almost, but the colour is more quiet, as in all the ladies' dresses. There aren't any bright reds, greens or even blues, but rather all these peach and canary (is that a colour?) and pastel colours. When there is something in the red family, it is always cerise, like banquettes at some French restaurants. And when all the couples are dancing together, it is such a strong masculine-feminine contrast, with much pulchritude on both sides, that even when they're just doing the simpler waltzes, it has a very subtle sexiness about it. The filming is strange-looking by now, because you have to really look hard to make out individual dancers. It's the only filmed ballet I've seen in which I would sometimes need to read 'with artists of the Royal Ballet' to really accept that these were real, live dancers; it's like film somehow transformed it into a literal dream, but there's the thrill at waking up and knowing that, of course, they are real dancers and there is some charm in the fact that they aren't listed and so those of us who don't know old RB casts don't know who any of them are. Another thing I experienced on watching it repeatedly is that, even though they are fine dancers, when some of them are technically imperfect, it doesn't matter, only adds to the atmosphere of ease and pleasure--like that wonderful unexpected sense of 'being at home' I've always experienced when in London (and never any other place I've been to that I wasn't living in.) So, for me, perhaps more only somewhat 'MGM musical', but more London--St. James Park, Claridge's, the Connaught, i.e., elements of kitsch but never brash.

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 July 2008 - 09:58 AM

I have to agree with the two preceding posts. I love the Ashton, too, although my exposure to it is only via screen, whether large or small. But it doesn't go into the Ravel description of "dancing on the edge of a volcano". I get the feeling that at worst, somewhere back in the kitchen, the soup has gone off. Balanchine's version, with its Valses Nobles et Sentimentales lead-up, reaches into tragedy, and the world-into-chaos that the score seems so vividly to illustrate. That having been said, they are both masterworks, with very different points of view and purposes.

#9 bart

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Posted 14 July 2008 - 10:08 AM

Patrick, you're right of course about the colors. The individual dresses are indeed extremely subtle. . The effect of garishness comes from somewhere else, though I can't put my finger on where.

I find Balanchine's treatment heavy-handed and overly literal, with its Death character and onstage costume change. It comes across to me as a 19C lesson about "morality." Ashton's version is more what I would have expected from Balanchine--it conveys the desperation and sense of "dancing on the edge of a volcano" with delicacy and refinement--and without resorting to characters and a plot.

I couldn't disagree more. Since Balanchine so seldom gave us "characters and a plot," as you say, when he did he had powerful reasons for doing so. I've also seen the Ashton only on video, but for me it was rather too delicate and refined --not much sense of danger or desperation at all.

Both of you put your finger on the most important differences. I to find both very fascinating and quite satisfying in their own way. If I had to choose, I'd go with Balanchine -- which I've just had the chance to revisit, on a recent Kirov video. The "plot" elements are far from heavy-handed or obvious in performance, though they can seem that way when described in words. There's an ambiguity, a mystery, about each figure. Although one may ask, "Who is he/she? or "What's his/her motivation?," it would never occur to me to think that there should be any answers to such questions.

At the end of the Balanchine, you can clearly see him setting up for the closing passage. 3 pairs of women appear from the wings downstage left. They wait. Most of us will, of course, know what they are waiting for -- one of the most famous exit passages in all ballet. But -- if you pretend to yourself that you DON'T know -- there's real suspence. Anything could happen (which is NOT the case in your typical story ballet). The exit of the ballerina, carried aloft by three men who you hardly noticed were there, is powerful precisely because it doesn't need an explication.

As for the Ashton: I do love his take on the music. But the restraint in the face of disintegration which the dancers exhibit at the end reminds me of one of those 19th-century novels of manners in which the Awful Truth about a character is revealed, with dreadful social consequences, when he does something like eating with the wrong fork. Ravel, I think, writing in response to the catastrophe of World War One, would have wanted more.

#10 Richka

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Posted 13 August 2009 - 08:12 AM

Even though Ashton, in my view, (and I know this is heresy) was a far better choreographer than Balanchine, I must say Mr. B has given us what I feel is a more dramatically intense version of Ravel's magnificent score. I can remember as a young ballet student at George Chaffee's studio, sitting in the first row in the balcony of City Center (and I could barely afford that) watching Tanny LeClerque and Franciscio Moncion dancing "Valse". Being new to New York City, I felt the 3 ladies in the opening with the long gloves, symbolized to me all the glamour and chic of Manhattan. Then Moncion's upstage entrance, so dark and mysterious. To me he was so clearly the figure of death. I saw it many times at City Center during the early 1950s and each time I left the theater with an ominous feeling.
When I lived in London, The Ashton version I've seen many times at Covent Garden and it is delightful to watch, full of movement and color, and so musical. But Balanchine added the drama which was rare for him. Of course "Serenade" has a touch of it when the unknown dancer falls down, and "Prodigal Son" naturally is full of drama. But these are Balanchine's earlier works. In latter years his work became far less interesting, to me at least.

#11 carbro

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Posted 13 August 2009 - 12:48 PM

Though both choreographers capture the mounting sense of abandon, desperation, and danger in the score, ...

Having seen the Ashton only on film, I may be missing something, but I what I remember of it, the score was the only ominous element. I suspect that there'd be no dark tones if one watched it in silence.

#12 papeetepatrick

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Posted 14 August 2009 - 06:24 AM

Having seen the Ashton only on film, I may be missing something, but I what I remember of it, the score was the only ominous element. I suspect that there'd be no dark tones if one watched it in silence.


Hey, good point, and I've done that with the Ashton a whole lof ot times, as an experiment when I was really studying the ballet and working the piece at the piano. It's just like looking at a scene out of Proust, maybe the second volume, at Balbec, those big hotels by the sea in the old days, but combined with some more Parisian and English flavours too, because you wouldn't see dinner jackets at the ocean. A ballroom somewhere, yeah, maybe in London, close to St. James Park maybe, near all the gentleman's clubs? A friend and i were talking about that area recently.

#13 rg

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Posted 14 August 2009 - 06:38 AM

don't know if it's been stated in this context before but the VALSES NOBLES ET SENTIMENTALES which makes up the first part of Balanchine's LA VALSE was choreographed separately by Ashton - in general those who saw this earlier work and who admire Ashton, say it was fine work indeed. photos of it in David Vaughan's and other books indicate a moody work more 'related' to the moods of Balanchine's ballet.

as i searched for the credits of Ashton's VALSES NOBLES i am reminded that Ashton used the music twice, once as indicated above and below:

Valses nobles et sentimentales - Chor: Frederick Ashton (complete revision of his earlier Valentine's eve); mus: Maurice Ravel (Valses nobles et sentimentales); scen & cos: Sophie Fedorovitch. First perf: London, Sadler's Wells Theatre, Jan 10, 1947, Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet.

and previously as indicated in the VALSES N. credits as:

Valentine's eve - Chor: Frederick Ashton; mus: Maurice Ravel (Valses nobles et sentimentales); scen & cos: Sophie Fedorovitch. First perf: London, Duke of York's Theatre, Feb 4, 1935, Ballet Rambert

#14 Alexandra

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Posted 14 August 2009 - 08:16 AM

I definitely feel the ominous element, even from the film. It's SUBTLE :) No Death figure, nothing obviously dramatic, just people swirling at the edge of a precipice, which is what is in the music. It's the bright young things waltzing, partying, waltzing as the world is about to explode, who don't realize they're in a vortex until the very end, and I do see that in the choreography.

Edited by Alexandra, 14 August 2009 - 08:31 AM.
changed the last sentence to be more clear (I hope)


#15 bart

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Posted 14 August 2009 - 08:47 AM

Thanks, Richka, for reviving this thread. I'm especially grateful for your memories of the original cast. (Leclerq was no longer dancing by the time I first attended NYCB. I saw a revival a few years after her illness, with Patricia McBride in LeClercq's role.)

As a teenager, I -- like you -- was fortunate to be able to get seats quite often in the first row of the balcony, and was grateful for the low (and subsidized) ticket price.

I can remember as a young ballet student at George Chaffee's studio, sitting in the first row in the balcony of City Center (and I could barely afford that) watching Tanny LeClerque and Franciscio Moncion dancing "Valse". Being new to New York City, I felt the 3 ladies in the opening with the long gloves, symbolized to me all the glamour and chic of Manhattan

For those who grew up in the 40s and 50s, that was indeed STILL the look of glamour. Audiences a generation later must see this as more of a museum piece than we did. I agree about Moncion: this was a perfect role for him.


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