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James Wilkie

Ashton

27 posts in this topic

I am very interested in Ashton's choreography as I think it is very beautiful and sometimes relatively simple, but as one of my teachers says 'Less is more'. I not sure if something like this has been posted before but I shall go ahead.

As a British student dancer I am very keen to dance what I feel is my heritage. With Balanchine and Tudor there estates are looked after in Trusts and if the ballets are not up to scratch then the ballets are not performed. I feel therfore that there should be a trust for Ashton to aim to preserve his work.

Now on a lighter note I would like to know what peoples favourite Ashton works are and who they liked dancing them or who the would like to see them danced by.

My list:

'The Dream' with Sarah Wildor as Titania and Johann Kobborg as Oberon.

'Symphonic Variations' but I do not have a favourite in the role.

I also like the choroegraphy that Ashton did for Swan Lake particularly the slow adage solos that put in for Dowell.

Did anyone see the documentry of Dowell on BBC Knowledge as it had some wonderful footage of Dowell dancing in some of Ashtons greats. :)

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James, are you sure that there is no trust for Ashton works?

The company I work for performed Ashton's Monotones I&II, two years ago. Though I don't work in the arm of the organization that licenses ballets, I know that we had very clear rules to follow. Lynn Wallis, who staged the ballet stayed longer (more rehearsal weeks/hours) than most other choreologists get. The ballet was given more stage/tech time than most others.

It seems as though there is a trust or some kind of organization that has it together.

As for favorite Ashton ballets, I adore THE DREAM, LA FILLE MAL GARDEE, MONOTONES I&II, JAZZ CALENDAR, ILLUMINATIONS, and A WEDDING BOUQUET. I was lucky to be involved in those ballets.

There is another that I saw The Royal Ballet perform at the MET in the 80s. Antony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley performed the leads and sets were by David Hockney. I can't remember the name. Maybe someone at BA does.

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What a lovely topic! I'm so glad you want to dance Ashton. I'll post something on this when I'm a bit cooler and my brain is working better!

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I don't think there's an official Trust yet, although there may be one in the works. I believe Ashton's heir controls the repertory, in the sense of who is allowed to perform it and who stages it.

James, I'm very glad to learn of your interest in Ashton. I hope you're not the only one of your generation! There are some of the "lost" ones I'd love to see, including his war ballets ("The Wanderer," "The Quest") and even some of the earlier ones ("Horoscope," which I think really is lost; they left the costumes behind when they had to flee Holland when the war broke out, and "The Lord of Burleigh," "Nocturne" and "Apparitions.") I also hope to see his "Romeo and Juliet" staged again. It was a bomb when it was last put on in Copenhagen, according to dancers because it was not well-staged and directed. And could we have "Sylvia" again?

I admired all of the bits Ashton added to "Swan Lake," especially the waltz, a classical pas de douze, that was quite complex and required a high standard for "top corps" or corpyphee dancers (one of the reasons, I'd guess, that he choreographed it). He choreographed several bits of "Sleeping Beauty" was well that would be nice to get back (garland waltz, a few solos). "Symphonic Variations, " "Monotones," "Daphnis and Chloe," "Fille," "Rhapsody," "Marguerite and Armand" (which isn't a story ballet with gaps in it, but a slide show of potent memories of a dying woman), "Fille," "Les Rendezvous," "Birthday Offering," "Ondine," "Month in the Country," "La Valse" -- well, that would be for a first season of the Ashton Ballet Company, at least :)

I recently had the opportunity to see a film of the first cast of "La Fille mal gardee" and it's Exhibit A in the "They don't dance it like they used to." Ashton is so often done daintily, he's not dainty. The corps in Fille danced BIG -- lots of backbends and arm swoops done extremely fast. (I was told by two Danish Juliets, used to the speed of Bournonville, that Ashton's lovely, lyrical Romeo and Juliet was the fastest choreography they'd ever faced.) So I'd love to see his ballets "danced in Ashton" and not globalglot.

I hope you'll keep us posted on your Ashton journey :)

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About Ashton's musicality, I think he is extremely musical. Not only that, his musicality is unique.

I don't mean this as a put down because I worship Balanchine, but when watching his MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM I see steps and patterns that to my eyes are very similar to those in STARS AND STRIPES and other ballets. Ashton's corps of fairies do fairies in the forest patterns. Ashton's Titania, Oberon, Puck, Bottom and the lovers do steps that I see in no other Ashton ballet. Titania flits like a fairy in Ashton's, in Balanchine's Titania is very beautiful but still dances like a woman more than a fairy to me.

Of course I have the greatest respect for both choreographers and their different musical styles.

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My all-time favourite Ashton ballet is FILLE - favourite Lise was Ann Jenner, and I loved Michael Coleman as Colas. THE DREAM is a close second - with the original cast, of course. I also love SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS. This work is a lot more complex than it looks at first viewing. Ashton was very worried that people thought it looked like something by Balanchine. (He asked me about it once.) I loved the last act that Ashton composed for Swan Lake - and the pas de douze that Alexandra mentions - one of the best walzes around. LOVE the Neopolitan dance - best combo: Ann Jenner and Alex Grant. I love the white Monotones. It was choreographed for a gala/benefit and the other piece was added later. Original cast, of course: Vivyan Lorraine, Dowell, and (I'm blanking out here - help!) Has Jazz Calendar been revived at all? It was a very imaginative piece, and I liked the score. it had the virtue of having a lot of people in it.

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I love virtually all of Ashton's ballets - I like their subtlety and musicality. If I have to pick favourites, I'd go for Symphonic Variations, for pure beauty, Fille for pure happiness, Monotones (the third cast member was Robert Mead, felursus), Month in the Country, and Marguerite and Armand - all with the original sets and costumes, and preferably original casts as well, except for Fille, where I actually preferred Christopher Gable to Blair as Colas, and Ann Jenner to Nerina as Lise. (Incidentally, felursus, there was a Tarantella in this year's Royal Ballet School performance choreographed by Ann Jenner, which certainly brought back happy memories of her enchanting performances of Ashton's Neapolitan Dance.)

Original casts - ah, we have a problem. In so many ballets, Ashton needs Fonteyn. I think, from what I've seen, that ballets made for her lose a bit (a lot?) in the translation to other dancers; but this will only be a problem to my generation and the previous one, who actually saw Fonteyn in Ondine, Marguerite etc. When I saw the recent BRB revivals of Dante Sonata and Scenes de Ballet, I was quite happy with the casting, because I didn't ever see Fonteyn in them.

Of the current dancers - and I haven't seen all of them - I think that Sarah Wildor is the most obviously Ashtonian. It's a matter of musicality and an understanding that ballet is more than just clever feet. I have great hopes for Alina Cojocaru, too, for the same reasons. I'm hoping to see both of them as Titania in August.

Of the current men that Ive seen, I don't think that I've felt that there is anyone who is particularly right for Ashton, so there's probably a niche for you, James! Are there any Ashton parts that you particularly covet?

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Thanks, Helena. I don't know why I was blanking out on Robert Mead's name. Does anybody know where he is/what he is doing now?

I did see the original "Fille" cast - once. I was on a cycling tour of Britain, and I snuck away to London to see two RB performances at Covent Garden. Fille was one and the other was a mixed bill that included Antigone and the Good Humored Ladies (which featured Lydia Sokolova as the elderly lady in the cast. Somewhere I have her autograph.) I can't remember what the first ballet of the evening was, and alas the programme was lost.

I do think I preferred Ann Jenner (she was my favourite Lise). I don't remember if I ever saw Christopher Gable in the role - although I guess I must have - but I adored Michael Coleman as Colas.

A lot of later Ashton was choreographed for dancers other than Fonteyn - Sibley was the first Titania, and the choreography is full of "Sibleyisms". I think that's what Ashton did a lot of - he picked out movement characteristics of the dancer and played them up. A good way of looking at that is to observe the characteristics of the choreography of something like "Enigma Variations" (a gem that no one has yet mentioned) and look at the dancers on whom the roles were made: the choreography fit the dancers like second skins. No wonder it was difficult for the second cast to take on the role.

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Robert Mead worked in Germany after leaving the Royal Ballet, and gained a good reputation as a stager of Ashton ballets. He died in 1988.

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I love FILLE, of course, but my absolute-number-one Ashton ballet is A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY. [How the Kennedy Center elected to showcase Guillem in MARGUERITE/ARMAND rather than in MONTH IN COUNTRY -- Guillem's other great Ashton success of late -- is a mystery to me!] I also adore PATINEURS (esp. blue skater solo), RENDEZVOUS (esp. pas de trois), and BIRTHDAY OFFERING (esp. Nerina variation). I also love, in CINDERELLA, the title character's fleet-footed solo with the broom in Act I.

My favorite aspect of Ashton is the fleet-footed-yet-dainty 'taquate' quality of the pointework in many female solos...and in quick-footed male variations. Something very special about it.

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Jeannie I have to agree with you I think Birthday Offering is fantastic.

It's Ashtons use of the upper body that really appeals to me. For example La Valse has to be the most tiring ballet going as its use of the upper body and port de bras is massive.

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James, I thought what you wrote about "La Valse" was very interesting. I've only seen that in the film version, never live, and I never ranked it as one of Ashton's best ballets -- it just looked like a corps de ballet exercise to me (sorry; I'll get out the tape again :) )

Sometimes when Ashton is discussed, there's the sense that he really didn't create that much, or that so much has been lost that there really isn't a repertory, but I think there are at least two dozen ballets that are in repertory (loosely defined; recently performed) or revivable (revived in living memory).

I'll start a list, and if anyone thinks of one I forgot, please add it. (Also, I should have moved this initially but I didn't notice it was on Dancers; moving to Aesthetic Issues).

Full lengths: Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Sylvia, Ondine, La Fille Mal Gardee, The Two Pigeons.

Les Rendezvous, Les Patineurs, Apparitions, Dante Sonata, Symphonic Variations, Scenes de Ballet, Marguerite and Armand, A Month in the Country, Daphnis and Chloe, Birthday Offering, The Dream, Monotones, Enigma Variations, Jazz Calendar, A Wedding Bouquet, Thais, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Illuminations, Rhapsody, La Valse.

That's 20 short works and six full lengths. There were also substantial portions of "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" and a lot of pas de deux and diverts for galas.

What have I missed? (I hope it's not necessary to note that I'm not counting works to make a case that Ashton is less than choreographer X, nor more than choreographer Y; just to put together what the surviving repertory is.)

[ 07-09-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Adding to your list of still performed:

One act -- Fa├žade (Colorado Ballet performed it at the Joyce in 2000)

[ 07-10-2001: Message edited by: Dale ]

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Glebb-I believe the David Hockney designed work you mentioned was a staging of Stravinsky's Nightingale done not by the Royal but by the Metropolitan Opera as the second portion part of a three part Stravinsky evening. (The Oedipus oratoria with Jesse Norman closed the evening -- I can't remember how it opened.) I believe the Met. was following Diaghilev precedent in having the singers in the pit for Nightingale and the dancers on stage. Ashton did the choreography and the leads were Dowell and Natalia Makarava (not Sibley). Hockney designed all three works on the program. I thought the whole evening was wonderful, and the Ashton ballet magical and beautiful, but I can't remember very much detail. One thing I do remember is that Dowell's dancing had a much "younger" quality than I had ever seen in him, certainly than I had seen in him in the eighties. At this point (in my opinion) Dowell was an extraordinary artist but not quite the quicksilver dancer on whom Ashton created Oberon, and yet Ashton managed somehow to recreate that effect in Dowell's dancing. Anyway, a gorgeous ballet -- one I have often wish could be revived.

Ashton's story ballets (I would prefer to say narrative or even character ballets) are by far and away the story ballets that I have found most moving and, more than that, most persuasive in the theater. I especially love A Month in the Country which I was lucky enough to see twice with the original cast and which I remember as a simply perfect ballet. Enigma Variations is another favorite, though the last time I saw it in the theater, many years ago, I didn't think the dancers "got" it. In any case, the trio for Elgar, his wife, and friend is about as extraordinary and nuanced as ballet characterization can get...Ashton manages to be genuinely "balletic" and yet keep the drama as fluid and natural looking as the dance. I have a more mixed reaction to his Cinderella than other posters, but the sequence at the end of Act I -- the variations for the seasons with the shifting scenic effects that accompany it -- seem to me an utterly tranforming renewal of Petipa's Sleeping Beauty: you can see the tradition, and you can see it becoming something totally new and distinctive. (Other parts of the ballet sometimes seem to me to fall back into mere Sleeping Beauty pastiche).

P.S. To James Wilkie who began this thread, thanks -- but one caveat: "trusts" and other ways of controlling choreographers' legacies can be a good thing (though not always), but even when they are, problems remain. Legacies in the performing arts are always tricky...And I promise, the presence of a Balanchine or Tudor "trust" does not mean that all the performances you see of their ballets will be "up to snuff"!

[ 07-10-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

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Alternatively, Glebb is maybe remembering Ashton's Varii Capricii, which had Dowell cast as a gigolo, with greased-back hair and shades - I still remember the shock-wave of delight which ran through the audience at the first London performance (the premiere was in New York), as they recognised that inside this disguise was their pure, classical prince! Sibley also was cast out of type.

To recreate the effect of the first cast today you'd probably need to see it with Lopatkina and perhaps someone like Peter Boal.

[ 07-10-2001: Message edited by: Jane Simpson ]

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Thanks for the additions. There was a solo Ashton did for Dowell that he danced with Makarova's short-lived company. I missed it, but it sounded divine, the kind of thing Ashton did so well, where he captured the essence of a dancer, as Fokine did with "Dying Swan." There are dozens of those, and I wonder if they'd look like anything on other people. (Although "Thais" didn't even look like a cousin of itself here in D.C. and people loved it. So ....)

Another one -- I don't know if it had a name -- was the 60th birthday present for Fonteyn, where he choreographed a solo for her out of ports de bra (she remained seated) and put in a gesture, or arm/head position, from all her roles, in order -- or at least, enough in order to justify a comment that you could tell when the people in the audience had come to ballet by the moment they started crying.

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the solo that leslie browne does under the credits at the end of the 'turning point' was choreographed by ashton, to, i think, a chopin etude.

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Thanks to everyone and sorry I haven't posted for a while but I am preparing for the school's performance.

To add to your list Alexandra,Ashton also choreographed the the Pas de Deux that Dowell and Sibley did at the Dowell gala I am unsure as to what it was called I think 'Soupirs' I can't find it in the casting. Sorry! :)

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The solo for Fonteyn's 60th birthday was called Salut d'Amour, the title of the Elgar piece Ashton used. He did something very similar for the Queen's 60th birthday about 15 years ago - well, not similar, I suppose, but also using a piece by Elgar and using its title Nursery Suite for the ballet. It was on the theme of two young girls, the Queen and her sister, danced by two RBS children - dressed to look like familiar childhood photos, with the right hairstyles and everything - and the way their lives diverged because one had to take on the responsibilities of monarchy, while the younger one had relative freedom. I didn't see either of these pieces myself - I only wish I had - but my mother saw Nursery Suite on television and found it absolutely wonderful and moving. I believe it had the Royal Family (well, most of them) in tears. Ashton was incredibly clever at this sort of evocative piece.

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And I'd forgotten Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Another one that, for me, when I first heard about I said, "Oh, no." (I'm not generally a fan of Cute.) But, like the Rooster and his Hens in "Fille," it's so perfect... There was also a suite for vegetables that I only saw a bit of on German television once -- a dancing cabbage. Again, I thought it was a bit much until the darned vegetables started dancing. :)

There was a solo for Merle Park as a cat ("La Chatte") that I never saw, and a "Voices of Spring" (also for Park, with Wayne Eagling) and "Explosion Polka" that Ashton did for a Vienna production of Fliedermaus one New Year's. He is the one choreographer who really didn't make any effort to have his works last. Odd, for someone who's thought of as old-fashioned and sentimental (not my characterization) he was so willing to create in the moment -- something that suited one (and only one) specific dancer at that one particular time.

I think I've read that "Lament of the Waves" (another dancer-specific piece) might be revivable. (There are many other ballets, of course, but the ones we've been mentioning, even these last ones for special occasions, were all filmed.)

Helena, there was an abbreviated, slightly changed version of "Salut d'Amour" (thanks for the title) at the Met Opera Gala in 1983.

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Another lovely Ashton work is 'The Two Pigeons.' What a shame that this one is so neglected. Wonder why? The Canadian video, 'Ballerina: Lynn Seymour,' offers an enticing look at the main pas de deux in rehearsal, by Seymour & Gable.

I can picture an Alina Cojocaru & an Angel Corella in the leading roles. ;)

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Thank you Jane. That's it! It was a lot of fun. Sibley was sort of a Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone type, and Dowell was sort of Elvis.

Joffrey also did Facade in the seventies.

Fun ballet to dance.

I think Tudor was the original Scottish Dancer and Markova did a double tour at the end of the Polka.

[ 07-10-2001: Message edited by: glebb ]

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ruth page's chicago ballet did facade in the 1970s, and i saw ben stevenson perform the 'gigolo' or whatever one wants to call him.

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Sorry for my confusion Glebb -- I hadn't realized Hockney was the designer for Varii Capricii -- but I'm glad you brought The Nightingale to my mind anyway...

Like at least a few other fans at the Met. premier of Varii Capricii, I was awaiting something more rapturous or, at least, elegantly classical, for Sibley's return to the ballet stage -- and the return of the much missed Sibley/Dowell partnership. Ashton was less pious and offered a bit of a surprize, but I do sometimes wonder how the more deliberately clever or jokey aspects of his choreography will weather over time...(It's honestly a question, and only revivals -- well stage and well cast revivals -- will tell.)

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I agree about the jokey aspect weathering well or ill. People complained that "Facade" had lost its subtlety very early -- when it moved into Covent Garden, if I'm remembering correctly (from reading, of course, not watching). I think it's as much that some of Ashton's dances are so made of his dancers -- Soupirs, the last Sibley-Dowell thing, was little more than glances and low arabesques, but they made something of it. If someone else does it -- not that I'm guessing that it's a deathless work that will enter the Canon -- it may well come back as glares and high kicks :)

The whole revivals/what holds up issue is so hard to judge -- and is so interesting. I've been surprised to hear friends who didn't see the first casts say that Balanchine's "Union Jack" or "Tombeau de Couperin" aren't very good ballets. When they were new, I thought they were wonderful. (I don't usually think of Balanchine as being as cast-specific as Ashton, but in some cases, in a grand, big spectacle like "Union Jack," I think he was.)

Back to Ashton, I didn't think any of the performances of "Symphonic Variations" I saw this spring were particlarly good, yet I talked to some people who were seeing the ballet for the first time who were very moved by it. I never know which is worse: to see a ballet you love not done very well and get cheered, or to see it in tatters and dismissed. :)

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