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Alistair Macaulay's NY Times piece on the "perilous conditionof the Ashton legacy


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#1 bart

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 10:47 AM

In Friday's LINKS, dirac posted Allistair Macaulay's NY Times piece on the current status of Ashton repertoire.

Starting with the proposition that "choreography is the most fragile of art forms," Macaulay outlines what has happened -- and is happening -- to several Ashton ballets since the choreographer's death. Despite the creation of an Ashton Trust several years ago, he finds that "the Ashton repertoire is in more perilous condition" than, for example, Balanchine's.

THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE LIFE OF ASHTON BALLETS

An example: Fille Mal Gardee, the rights to which were left by Ashton to Alexander Grant.

Many steps and gestures have demonstrably been altered since Ashton’s day; in one recent season at Covent Garden every single “Fille” performance seemed to bring the erosion of some further detail. The ballet still pulsates with the tenderness, love and joy that always made it one of the most life-enhancing ballets ever made, but it’s being danced in what Shakespeareans might fairly call a Third Quarto edition, with many details of Ashton’s finer poetry smudged. And who can be sure that when Mr. [Alexander] Grant is no longer with us, its more lovable qualities will survive?


Any thoughts about the article? Or ideas about the situation?

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 03:32 PM

I'm very glad Macaulay wrote it! Ashton gets very little attention these days (part of his point, of course). It is troublesome -- we've lost Massine and nearly lost Tudor and Fokine. Ashton had a brief revival in 2004 (the birthday year) but now he's a very small part of his home (Royal Ballet) repertory. I was interested to read the institutional situation (who owns what). I knew most of it, but am still glad to have it in one place.

I wish the article could have been longer -- after you deal with all the things Macaulay mentioned, there's still the problem that Ashton's ballet are so delicate that if you miss one nuance, you're not really seeing the ballet.

Of course, Petipa might say the same thing about his work, if he had the misfortune to stumble upon it today :tiphat:

Thanks for posting this as a discussion question, bart!

#3 Helene

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 03:52 PM

Is anyone teaching Ashton style? If the dancers don't know the style, it's hard to imagine how to keep the repertory going.

If, for example, ABT performs Ashton ballets with as much regard as they just performed "La Sylphide", the steps might be there, but the ballets will be a shadow of themselves.

#4 PeggyR

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 04:23 PM

From Macaulay's article:

Must we, only 21 years after Ashton’s death, settle for Third Quarto versions of ballets that once made him the toast on both sides of the Atlantic?

Is anyone teaching Ashton style? If the dancers don't know the style, it's hard to imagine how to keep the repertory going.

Which is worse: seeing a ballet in a stylistically impure or diluted form, or losing it altogether, never to be seen again in any form?

#5 leonid17

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 04:25 PM

In Friday's LINKS, dirac posted Allistair Macaulay's NY Times piece on the current status of Ashton repertoire.

Starting with the proposition that "choreography is the most fragile of art forms," Macaulay outlines what has happened -- and is happening -- to several Ashton ballets since the choreographer's death. Despite the creation of an Ashton Trust several years ago, he finds that "the Ashton repertoire is in more perilous condition" than, for example, Balanchine's.

THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE LIFE OF ASHTON BALLETS

An example: Fille Mal Gardee, the rights to which were left by Ashton to Alexander Grant.

Many steps and gestures have demonstrably been altered since Ashton’s day; in one recent season at Covent Garden every single “Fille” performance seemed to bring the erosion of some further detail. The ballet still pulsates with the tenderness, love and joy that always made it one of the most life-enhancing ballets ever made, but it’s being danced in what Shakespeareans might fairly call a Third Quarto edition, with many details of Ashton’s finer poetry smudged. And who can be sure that when Mr. [Alexander] Grant is no longer with us, its more lovable qualities will survive?


Any thoughts about the article? Or ideas about the situation?


Firstly Bart thank you for raising this issue.

I have always deferred to my elders who saw legendary dancers at their height and I am going to say that what Mr.Macaulay has touched upon, cannot be evaluated unless you have some experience of the Royal Ballet at its performing apogee. By this I mean a balance of filling the characters dramatically or the style of a role together with the technique to match either the era, or the best of those that had gone before.

The tragedy of the Ashton repertoire with the Royal Ballet is threefold and I am going to avoid the ownership of particular ballets which Mr Macaulay has touched upon.

Firstly, the sacking, for that is what it was, of Michael Somes, the most difficult, severe, but dedicated protector of the Ashton repertoire, when it should have been the sacking of the less than always first rate choreographer Kenneth MacMillan. I believe when Michael Somes went, so did the “Royal Ballet style” begin to trickle away and neither Anthony Dowell or Antoinette Sibley both Ashton specialists were in a position to save the decline.

Secondly, the subsequent appointments of Artistic Directors of the Royal Ballet who have failed Ashton, who WAS and IS, the Royal Ballet plus of course a few ballets by Petipa,Ivanov, Perrot, Fokine, Balanchine, De Valois, Massine, Nijinska, Cranko plus a good number of MacMillan's one act ballets not the overblown later 3 act works whose turgid and torpid moments diminish the impressive scenes that he also created.

I will not comment on Alexander Grant's staging’s of "La Fille...", as I believe the Royal Ballet have lost the way with this triumphant Ashton ballet many years ago, with a long series of miscasting or over parting. La Fille mal gardee was the third ballet that I ever saw and from 1961 onwards I saw the original cast at almost every performance (yes it really was that complete a ballet experience) until Nadia Nerina let the company.

Thirdly part of the problem and perhaps most importantly, has been the distinct decline in ballet criticism over the last twenty years, with only two or three critics in London waving the flag of their independent and knowledgeable views.

I cannot express my disappointment with the Royal Ballet over the last 20 years when publicity, has replaced substance and still failed to sell seats.

I have probably paid for 3000 tickets over the years and I sincerely plead that Terpsichore, or whosoever God empowers to descend and to renew this wonderful company who reached triumphant heights in the 1960's and 1970's which have yet to be matched in succeeding years.

I have to mention Dame Monica Mason’s remarkable achievement in pulling the Royal Ballet, from the absolute abyss. She is I believe now shackled by the economic situation (check out next seasons repertoire) and seeming pressures of changing the direction of the repertoire from what was once a successful academic classical ballet of the first rank, to now include dance works, far removed from what made and sustained the Royal Ballet’s world status.

Only time will tell as to the fate of a favourite company of mine.

PS I was grateful to see the comments of Alexandra, Helene and Peggy R.

#6 Quiggin

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 05:52 PM

San Francisco Ballet did a handsome Symphonic Variations several years ago, Anthony Dowell directed it, and you could see its architectural strengths quite clearly. I don't know Ashton very well, but SF's production seemed superior to the one currently on YouTube with the Royal Ballet in 2007, which seems overly mannered and a little slack. You can see why so much of SV depended on dancers like Margot Fonteyn. But no one holds themselves like that anymore, no one operates out of that lovely reserve. The manner of being in the world of her generation no longer exists. Ashton may be more fragile in that way much more than Balanchine or even Tudor.

On the other hand the YouTube clip Cristian posted of Alejandro Virelles doing a bit of La Fille mal gardee is a delight. Maybe Ashton will come back to life through Havana!

#7 Helene

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 06:45 PM

Which is worse: seeing a ballet in a stylistically impure or diluted form, or losing it altogether, never to be seen again in any form?

I think it depends on the ballet and whether or not there are filmed versions of great exponents of the roles and solid ensemble work.

For example, I think ABT's "La Sylphide", while it didn't fill the Met, is a ballet to which parents will take little girls in dresses with wings, regardless of what it looks like. (Those same kids wore the same dresses to NYCB's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".) More abstract or difficult or currently obscure works, not so much. There has to be something in the performance that makes people understand the underlying greatness, or the work will fall by the wayside and be lost.

The surviving originators of roles created in the 60's and 70's are getting on in years, and in the Ashton rep, there aren't enough companies that are producing his work and which can mine their knowledge. The Ashton "DNA" is getting lost. Someone asked Peter Boal in a Q&A about whether Ashton would be added to an upcoming PNB season -- there are several ballets that would have been quite wonderful for Louise Nadeau, for example -- and he replied that he didn't know Ashton's work. He's the AD of one of the top companies in the US, and Ashton's work hadn't come across his radar. Ashton's work should be like Petipa's: even if the "home" company doesn't perform it, it should be part of every classical dancer's dance education, even if the dancers have to seek it out themselves.

In the Balanchine and to an extent the Robbins rep, luckily, many of the originators coach and train dancers who coach and train the next generation, and former dancers like Francia Russell, who retired in her early twenties, were chosen presciently by Balanchine to stage as early as the 60's. All of the first generation can pass on what Balanchine taught them directly. That happened somewhat in the Ashton rep -- I saw a fine "La Fille Mal Gardee" done by the Australian Ballet about 15 years ago -- but not to the extent that when the Mother Ship was failing to maintain the rep, there are dozens of companies that could keep the DNA alive and well enough to be revived.

It's a ray of hope that a company like SFB will perform "Symphonic Variations" instead of seeking out the next NEW! high-impact aerobics routine.

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 04:10 AM

Macaulay touches briefly on the state of Balanchine, but doesn't mention that Balanchine and those around him created a "Balanchine Machine" to run quality control and maintenance on that repertoire. Ashton followed suit in one way by naming beneficiaries to receive the rights to certain ballets, but the mechanism of Estate, Trust, and Foundation was not established before his death. And the some of the beneficiaries found an unfortunate way of dying relatively shortly after him, taking the artistic and legal trail farther from the source. If this were Egyptology, the tabloids would have dreamed up "The Curse of SirFredhotep" long before today. I too am glad of the article just for spelling out who presently has the rights to what!

#9 bart

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 05:30 AM

Mel's post is a good cauitionary for choreographers. I hope that they are thinking about how to protect their work after they are gone!

Helene writes:

The Ashton "DNA" is getting lost. Someone asked Peter Boal in a Q&A about whether Ashton would be added to an upcoming PNB season -- there are several ballets that would have been quite wonderful for Louise Nadeau, for example -- and he replied that he didn't know Ashton's work. He's the AD of one of the top companies in the US, and Ashton's work hadn't come across his radar. Ashton's work should be like Petipa's: even if the "home" company doesn't perform it, it should be part of every classical dancer's dance education, even if the dancers have to seek it out themselves.


Your comment regarding Peter Boal are really worth thinking about. How is it possible that even a man like Boal "didn't know Ashton's work?" I don't think this is a reflection on Boal, a thoughtful artist with far-reaching aesthetic interests, who spent his entire dancing career in a truly international dance capital. This lack of experience, lack of knowledge, reflects something much deeper. How can one know Ashton if you never see it -- or if you see it, even rarely, in unpersuasive, inauthentic performances?

It seems counter-intuitive, but restrictive policies such as those imposed by the Balanchine Trust actually seem to encourage more companies to do the work. The Balanchine Trust promotes and suports the work at the same time that it is keeping things under control. It operates with clearly defined rights, well-formulated rules, and -- hugely important -- assistance from authorized representatives of the Trust. This does not seem to be the case with the Ashton Trust

Does anyone know why the Ashton Trust seems to have been ineffective? Or have suggestions of what they might do to improve their work?

#10 Helene

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 05:42 AM

There could be another factor at work, too: Ashton takes a lot of work that doesn't jive with dancers current expectations of expression or hierarchy. A number of works that have been added to the rep at PNB lately, for example, are "dancers' dances", ones that spark their imagination and in which any given corps member is not the fourth in the third row, some of which are more interesting to do, given the dancers' comments, than to watch, at least for me.

Ashton's works take discipline, modesty, and a certain amount of self-abnegation, as well as a commitment to a style of movement that is Volkova's legacy.

#11 miliosr

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 05:55 AM

Poor Macaulay -- clinging to the notion that the Ashton repertory has any life in it when it has already entered its death spiral.

The Ashton repertory (like the Tudor repertory) is as doomed as the Byzantines were behind the crumbling walls of Constantinople in the 1450s or the Nasrid Granadans were in their mountaintop kingdom in the 1490s. When the leader of the third best company in the United States is unfamiliar with the Ashton repertory, then it's over. (Note: I appreciate his honesty although it doesn't necessarily redound to his credit.) When the leader of the first or second best company in the United States can find room for five ballets by He-who-shall-not-be-named on his company's Spring schedule but not for Tudor's Gala Performance (which several posters on this board stated was a no-brainer), then it's over. A few performances here and there won't preserve the style over the long haul. (i.e. The Danes performing Five Brahms Waltzes as part of a novelty ballerina night won't make the RDB Ashton specialists any more than performing The Unsung as part of a novelty danseur night will make the RDB Limon specialists.)

I say follow Merce Cunningham's lead and stage multi-year "Viking funerals" for the Ashton and Tudor repertories. Let them slip into the night so we can all settle into the bi-polar world of the 21st century.

Gloomily yours . . .

#12 Helene

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 06:12 AM

To add fuel to your gloom, Anton Pankevitch, who had danced with the Royal Ballet before coming to PNB, did a Q&A that I saw, in which in describing his career moves, said that he didn't like dancing Ashton, finding it "old-fashioned", but loved to dance Macmillan, whom he thought was a dance genius.

By "not knowing" Ashton's work, I assume Boal meant that he wasn't familiar enough with it to consider it, not that he had never seen any Ashton ballets, although from the tours they did in 80's, I know I saw a lot of Macmillan.

#13 Drew

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 09:49 AM

Although I think it likely that, as Helene suggested, when Boal said he "didn't know" Ashton's work, he probably meant he was not terribly familiar with it or some such, I still consider the remark absolutely shocking. It reflects very, very badly on the state of ballet "culture" generally--something IS really wrong when the director of a major ballet company feels comfortable saying he does not "know" Ashton's work -- but I am afraid I don't think it reflects that well on Boal himself.

Dancing in New York for so many years, he had many opportunities to see substantial samples of Ashton's work reasonably well danced even if one assumes that early in his career he was not focused on the wider dance education necessary to be a director. And if he had a lacuna that large in his dance education once he became a director, it's surprising he did not make a point of filling it. (Ashton choreographed for NYCB early in its history; and if one assumes, as I do NOT, that NYCB is understandably the be all and end all for Boal's dance education, that fact alone might have sparked his curiosity.)

I could understand a director concluding that Ashton's style is so "particular" that his dancers would be unable to cultivate it properly, though whether or not that is the case for PNB I have no opinion. Perhaps Boal was thinking that and didn't want to say so?? I think I would prefer to imagine that was the explanation for his remark.

I am also inclined to think that with all great ballet choreographers--from Perrot to Petipa to Balanchine--we have to assume from generation to generation that elements and details will be lost and changed (yes, the "third quarto" text) but that many of their ballets are still worth preserving and can still survive to be effective and powerful works of art. I am not ready to say we should jettison a repertory or even a work simply because it doesn't look as it did (even allowing that it DID look better). Of course, we should try to preserve what's great--and fight on its behalf--but I tend to think a mezzo-mezzo performance of Ashton's The Dream still beats most of what is out there...and who is to say that a new performance tradition in another generation might not find a way to bring it to better life again in any case?

I am aware that sometimes the performances are so lame that the ballet is effectively wrecked, but I don't think we have reached that point yet with Ashton -- or Balanchine -- and am not inclined to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

(By the by, I think it is not only the Balanchine Trust that deserves credit for the "life" of the Balanchine repertory or even the number of former Balanchine dancers directing other companies, but also the simple fact of NYCB dancing huge swathes of his repertory steadily over the years and periodically taking it on tour: I know many people have been disatisfied with some of their performances over the years, but in New York there is a lot of Balanchine and a lot of varied Balanchine on a steady basis; a very different picture from Ashton at the Royal Ballet. An old saying has it that you can't be more Catholic than the Pope--if the Royal doesn't keep Ashton alive, well, that's not much of an inspiration or guide to anyone else.)

#14 dirac

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 10:23 AM

Is anyone teaching Ashton style?


Unlike Balanchine, Ashton did not teach, which may have had some long term consequences. Alexander Grant has said that dancers do not have to be trained in an “Ashton style” – properly coached, they can dance his ballets.

I could understand a director concluding that Ashton's style is so "particular" that his dancers would be unable to cultivate it properly, though whether or not that is the case for PNB I have no opinion. Perhaps Boal was thinking that and didn't want to say so?? I think I would prefer to imagine that was the explanation for his remark.


Hi, Drew. Nice to hear from you. There could be any number of reasons for Boal saying what he did. It’s possible that, as Helene notes, he meant to say something to the effect that doesn’t know Ashton’s work as well as he does Balanchine’s or Robbins’, for example, which would be reasonable enough.

(It may also be, however, that he doesn’t think, for his own reasons, that Ashton is right for his company but doesn’t want to say so bluntly.)

(By the by, I think it is not only the Balanchine Trust that deserves credit for the "life" of the Balanchine repertory or even the number of former Balanchine dancers directing other companies, but also the simple fact of NYCB dancing huge swathes of his repertory steadily over the years and periodically taking it on tour: I know many people have been disatisfied with some of their performances over the years, but in New York there is a lot of Balanchine and a lot of varied Balanchine on a steady basis; a very different picture from Ashton at the Royal Ballet. An old saying has it that you can't be more Catholic than the Pope--if the Royal doesn't keep Ashton alive, well, that's not much of an inspiration or guide to anyone else.)


I agree. Balanchine (and Robbins) have one of the world’s great companies dedicated to performing their works. Other companies of varying size and strength may have Balanchine in and out of their repertories, depending on the AD, but for NYCB to be dancing the repertory year in, year out, is crucial, regardless of what you may think about Martins' stewardship of the company.

#15 SandyMcKean

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 10:27 AM

It reflects very, very badly on the state of ballet "culture" generally--something IS really wrong when the director of a major ballet company feels comfortable saying he does not "know" Ashton's work -- but I have to say I don't think it reflects at all well on Boal himself.

I have to take exception to this statement (hopefully I am not just being defensive of "my" local AD).

I only "know" Peter Boal since he arrived here in Seattle some 5 years ago. Perhaps in NYC he was one way, but here another (altho I doubt that). In my observation of him here, he seems like a very straight forward person. He doesn't seem to "shade" his speech with an eye to how it might be preceived. I really like this about him. I trust him. He gives me the real scoop. At the same time he adroitly stays away from pronouncements that could cause him or his company grief or internal strife. He is easily respected and liked.

Given my prespective, Boal's comment that Helele heard seems to me to be nothing more than a truthful answer to a simple question. Boal is very thoughtful, and it is clear to me that he puts great effort into picking his reps. I've heard him state his overall goals and process on more than one occasion. He seems to see himself as someone who is a position to educate his dancers and his audience to a wider world of dance than was traditionally the case in Seattle. He says that he's doing that step by step. For example, he has said that he specifically focused on increasing the dancers acting ability (he's succeeded masterfully I think considering the progress the dancers have made from Mailliot's R&J to the recent Dances at a Gathering). He strikes me as a careful person. He is not inclined to take massive risks, altho risks he does indeed take.

I think his remark reflects that thoughtful care so that he doesn't take either the dancers or the audience "too far, too fast". Being on the modest side I think he is sticking with that which he knows best, and that which he is confident will move the company in the direction he has charted. He's simply not going to mess with stuff he isn't totally confident is within his sphere of knowledge. From my prespective I think his "Ashton" comment comes primarily from his basic honesty and his respect for both the dancers and the audience. He's no gun slinger.

P.S. One must also realize that the "culture" here in Seattle is far less cyncial than in many other places in the world


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