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Ashton Style

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From FauxPas' observation in the ABT Cinderella thread, ABT's production of Ashton's "Cinderella" has re-triggered the discussion of Ashton style among critics. From Barre Flies, Gaynor Minden's hosted critic blogs, come the following:

From Leigh Witchel:

You can’t dance Ashton without using your torso – it’s got to really bend. Not just like classroom port de bras, but what seems an exaggerated sweep.

From Robert Johnson:

Yet no production of Cinderella could be more classical, worshipfully exalting the ballerina’s line and the particular beauty of her feet. This choreographer is fond of small, quick steps: finicky piqués, scurrying runs on pointe, quick tendus front and back and steps that paw the ground. The ballerina’s feet always trick us into paying attention to them, capturing our gaze and moving rapidly to give an impression of lightness in terre-à-terre combinations. Yet Ashton is comfortable with grand gestures, too.

the plasticity in the upper body that is an Ashton trademark. For all his classicism, this choreographer (a student of Nijinska) was addicted to movement.

From Apollinaire Scherr:

Balanchine brings out the mercurial nature of the art via speed and space-eating steps. Ashton concentrates on the body’s shape-shifting, often one part at a time.

From Alexandra Ansanelli:

Ashton always wanted to master épaulement first
Classical purity without affectation

From Laura Jacobs:

There is abandon in Ashton, yes, and curvaceous phrasing, but it’s not bodice-ripping and never monumental. Instead it’s that English love of the phrase coolly deployed and wittily or lyrically contained–articulation just so, for the civilized joy of it.

The godmother and her retinue of fairies acquiesce to the torso’s sway; they spiral and twist while they step. Straight also harmonizes with curve in their hops on pointe, with the line of the ankle broken but the foot curved at the toes. Likewise, the fairies’ squires flex their knees high when they jump, then shoot them down like an arrow or fling them sideways like the tail of a falling star. Ashton is not interested in the ballast of the thigh but in the brilliance below the knee.

From Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times:

And Ashton’s choreography often sets up a striking tension between what we see and hear.

Leigh Witchel also writes,

Ashton’s style is more fragile than Balanchine’s; there are fewer opportunities to dance it and fewer people working to preserve it.

which brings to mind the frequent comment that Balanchine is less a technique-based style than an approach to movement, and Balanchine training -- at SAB or any of the neoclassical-focused academies -- isn't a strict syllabus or pedagogy.

With Sarasota Ballet and, locally, chamber ballet company New York Theatre Ballet striving to present Ashton in his own style, or certainly more in his own style than other companies who present his works in isolation, what I find promising is the focus on the extent to which the dancers' ability to grasp the style (or not) is the focus of so much commentary. For a while, Ashton style seemed to be holding on by a gossamer thread and a prayer, and now is at least holding on with twine, with the expectation that it can be resurrected, if only for specific productions.

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This all looks very interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to get into it yet. I’ve been searching through Mariinsky Festival reviews in russian (using Google translations) of this year’s Sylvia and can’t find the exact article, but will continue searching if necessary. From a Mariinsky dancer’s, Viktoria Tereshkina’s, point of view, Frederick Ashton’s choreography is the hardest that she’s ever had to do. One reason is that she had to enter her jumps after only one step (I believe that this is exactly what she said, having the hotel receptionist in St. Petersburg translate it).


“NY Times critic Alastair Macaulay has likened Ashton’s choreographic skills to those of composer Haydn:

“Ashton choreographs the way that Haydn composed: he takes a motif, adds to it, plays with it, changes its dynamics, sets it against something dissimilar, turns it inside out, extends it, transforms it.

“One of Asthon’s most recognised and admired qualities was his use of classical vocabulary in dance making. Rather than resorting to a severe transformation of ballet steps (as Balanchine did) Ashton created works that were purely classical but felt modern at the same time.”

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From Marina Harss in "Dance Tabs":

Unlike Balanchine’s majestic classicism, Ashton’s is warm, elaborate, full of twists and bends. How many ways can the torso bend, the arms waft, the shoulders tremble? How many versions are there of the warbling bourrée? How many variations on the pas de chat and the sissonne? Ashton uses them all. And this is the challenge: finding ways to soften contemporary ballet technique and rediscover these rounded, pliant shapes, phrase them, and give them life.

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While ABT will never be an Ashton company, I'm hoping that by slowly adding Ashton ballets and reviving the ones they have regularly, that the company will reach the tipping point where some of the style and technique get into the dancers' bones, and they're ready for each new work.

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I remember when the Joffrey had enough Ashton in their standing rep that they were getting close to an understanding of the style. I particularly remember a wonderful performance of Wedding Bouquet...

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