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Frederick Ashton’s Ballets: Style, Performance, Choreography

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Dance Books has announced the publication of Geraldine Morris' "Frederick Ashton's Ballets: Style, Performance, and Choreography." From the email announcements:

The author, a former member of the Royal Ballet, has produced a ground-breaking study of six of Ashton's ballets, using them as examples to discuss the nature of Ashton's style and its relationship to early twentieth century dance training in Britain. She discusses the problems of performing Ashton's work in a stylistically correct manner, and suggests how some present day defects might be remedied. The result is exhilarating and enlightening but also controversial.

Here's a link to book page on the Dance Books website:


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Sandik, if you have time, please report any interesting findings – especially anything characterizing elements of the Ashton style or approach.

Alas, I've got a pile of work and family obligations right now, so I won't be reading through this until that's done...

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In 2014 there were far more Ashton ballets in performance than is usually the case and there were also some fascinating offerings from the archives. During the summer Birmingham Royal Ballet performed an Ashton triple bill of Les Rendezvous, Dante Sonata and Facade. I went to Birmingham to see it because Dante Sonata is such a rarity that I had only seen it twice when the company first revived it after a gap of about fifty years. The ballet is fascinating because it is so unlike anything else that Ashton produced but it was two live performances of Les Rendezvous, followed a few months later by a BBC film of the same ballet from 1962 that sent me back to read Geraldine Morris's book.

Now I knew that Les Rendezvous would not look like the ballet did when I first saw it in the 1970's because it has been redesigned in a manner which is totally insensitive to the choreographer's floor plan and the ballet's original setting and mood.But I was prepared for that. At one performance it was reasonably well cast with the lead female role given to a dancer who could manage the soft, almost Giselle like qualities, demanded by the ballerina's role in Les Rendezvous. At the other performance the dancer was hopelessly miscast or perhaps had ignored the coach.I expected some difference between the casts in the two live performances. What I was not ready for was how different the dancing in both live performances looked when compared to that in the filmed version which I saw a few months later. I did not expect them to look exactly the same but they looked like totally different ballets. In the 1962 film the dancers were light and very fast with lovely arms, little or no preparation for jumps and with light and shade in their dancing the live casts were, by comparison, slower and more deliberate and lacked the liveliness and the sense of fun that was somehow generated by the filmed performance. Seeing the film convinced me that I had not been mistaken when I had felt dissatisfied by the quality of the dancing in recent revivals. What did the book tell me?

Morris begins her book by writing about the effect that the Russian "absolutist methods" of training have had on the ability of dancers to recognise differences in style and reproduce the work of older choreographers. The fact that pupils of these methods are told that what they are being taught will enable them to perform the step in question in any ballet she believes sends dancers on to the stage unable to distinguish between the danse d'ecole and the form of the steps as set by the choreographer.The idea that there is one fixed way of performing any step is a significant part of the problem in reproducing Ashton's style but so too, she points out, is the modern fashion of treating the pas de bouree as mere linking steps taking the dancer from one pose to the next where in Ashton these steps are often an integral part of the characterisation. She describes her methodology and devotes a whole chapter to the various influences on Ashton's choreography. Perhaps the most important part of the chapter is the discussion of the eclectic nature of the ballet training available in England in the 1920's and 1930's.She makes it clear that the dancers that he worked with had a shared aesthetic but because of the variety of training available to them, were more open and receptive, and better able to identify different styles than is the case today. She writes about Rambert and comments on the individuality of the dancers that she trained and her ability to identify, nurture and support

young choreographic talent. She writes about de Valois and her choreography; the influence on Ashton of Nijinska, Petipa and Buddy Bradley but despite Alexander Grant's assertion that Massine was essential to understanding Ashton ,Massine is scarcely mentioned. She also discusses the impact on him of seeing Pavlova and Duncan dance.

She devotes three chapters to in depth discussion of six ballets. A Wedding Bouquet and Les Illuminations are paired in Chapter 3; Birthday Offering and Jazz Calendar in Chapter 4 and finally in Chapter 5 Daphnis and Chloe and A Month in the Country. It is in the section on Birthday Offering that the reader is shown how little Ashton and the Royal Ballet relied on dancers with unified training and how much they depended on dancers who shared an aesthetic, ballet as a flow of movement, and a style which he had, in large part, created. She provides timings for the majority of the Ballerinas' solos in Birthday Offeriing which are considerably faster than we were treated to in the 2012 revival. The discussion of most of the ballets includes quite a lot of information about the design which should make it clear to anyone contemplating redesigning these, or any other of his works, that they will do far more harm than good to the work in question. Many of us are still recovering from the ill judged ancient Greek style designs for Daphnis and Chloe which killed the piece by restricting movement that had previously been amplified by the movement of the fabric used in the girl's skirts.

I found that the book helped me to identify much of what was missing in many of the performances that I have seen in the last twenty years or so. It would be nice to think that some of those responsible for reviving Ashton's ballets in London would read this book and then look at some of the films from the 1960's and 1970's to see what is missing from current performances. I sometimes think that some of the coaches are so in awe of what today's dancers can do that they fail to notice what they can't do. I suspect that one of the reasons that dancers skimp on the detail is because it is very difficult to dance Ashton's choreography well and he does not let the dancer show how hard his choreography is. I think that this book is of use to anyone interested in Ashton's works whether or not they have seen all the ballets covered in the book. It would be nice to think that ballet is a sufficiently mature as an art form to recognise that just as you can not sing Mozart as if he was Puccini or play Handel as if he was Wagner that you should be sensitive to the choreographers aesthetic and style when you dance twentieth century ballets.

As to how and why things changed even among those trained at the Royal Ballet School the de Valois syllabus was dropped when Merle Park became director of the school.

A word of warning about the DVDs mentioned at the end of the bibliography. The author is not necessarily endorsing them as providing fine examples of how Ashton's ballets should be danced.

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