When something which is created for a specific event – inspired by and commemorating a special occasion – it should be enjoyed for that purpose and that purpose only, leaving after it a lingering image through which it can be remembered. Ballets created for such purposes, such as Ashton’s various pieces d’occasion, should be similarly treated, rather than being wheeled out every few seasons, their significance deteriorating with every performance.
Two particular works come to mind on the subject of pieces d’occasion: Ashton’s Birthday Offering, created for the 25th anniversary of the Royal Ballet, and Marguerite and Armand, again an Ashton work and a vehicle specifically, at the time, for Fonteyn and Nureyev. Both of these ballets were created for a particular situation – the first an important milestone, the second a legendary pairing – and longevity was never the desired quality. The fact that they are both in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet for the 2011/12 season shows that while it wasn’t what the choreographer originally intended, both works have enough choreographic integrity to ensure they have lasted.
Every choreographer has their first cast – those dancers that will dance the opening night and a majority of performances, but most ballets are choreographed to survive and have don’t have roles that “belong” to particular dancers. These two ballets are exceptional in that sense. It wasn’t until Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche were granted permission to dance Marguerite and Armand that anyone had dared touch those roles created by, and for, Fonteyn and Nureyev. The fact that this occurred after the death of Ashton and before the recent establishment of The Frederick Ashton Foundation surely says something on the matter. Birthday Offering did enjoy various revivals during Ashton’s lifetime, but the ballerina solos will forever be attached to their creators whose unique qualities they were designed to celebrate.
Balanchine never put together a ballet with a view to it outlasting him, but he did frequently revive previous works, changing the choreography as he saw fit for the current cast. Ashton was unlike Balanchine in that he showed more reverence for his original work, seeing the choreography in less of a state of flux than his trans-atlantic contemporary. Any revival of these pieces d’occasion can only ever be a shadow of their original as a result.
We may be half a century on from the creation of these two ballets, and ballet training and technique may have moved to a different level – not a higher one, but somewhere else. Neither creation was intended as a technical exercise which would be extended over the years; both were about capturing a particular moment, a snapshot of a specific group of dancers, doing what they did most beautifully. Should these ballets not be performed any more, those who weren’t around first time miss out, but even when they are performed now, we are deprived of what they were intended to be: they were of their time, and there they shall remain.