Tag Archives: Frederick Ashton

Master Craftsman

I have long been an ardent and vocal devotee of Mr. Balanchine; his ballets excite me like those of no other. However, the recent Royal Ballet triple bill of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s work is a fitting homage on the 20th anniversary of his tragic death, but more importantly, a reminder of the real extent of his genius.

More closely associated with his full length ballets – Romeo and Juliet, Manon, Mayerling – than his shorter works, it is in these less renowned one-acters that his artistic range is really evident. The strictly academic, but utterly joyous Concerto; the dark and unsettling Las Hermanas; the elegiac and uplifting Requiem. Three completely different ballets, not only in content, but in style, mood and intent. The one unifying factor is MacMillan’s thorough knowledge and reverence for the classical technique, and moreso, how it can be employed to achieve a huge range of emotional states.

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Claire Calvert in Concerto (courtesy of DanceTabs)

Concerto, with it’s wonderful military-flavoured Shostakovich score, is closely related to some of the works of  Balanchine in its minimal aesthetic. Unlike Balanchine, MacMillan savours the conventions of the classical form, rather than reinventing them. The bouyant opening and closing sections sandwich what must rank as one of the most beautiful adagio movements in the neoclassical repertoire. Las Hermanas, a distillation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, is more traditional MacMillan territory; can any other choreographer confidently portray sexual violence or despair through the medium of classical dance? Requiem is at the far end of MacMillan’s vast repertoire – his homage to colleague and friend John Cranko, set to Fauré’s  work of the same name. While it is overtly religious, it still remains abstract – any narrative being personal to the viewer. It is one of those work sthat leaves one breathless, the interpretation of the music being so pitch-perfect.

There have been many choreographers over the decades that can match MacMillan in both popularity and work-rate, but this triple bill is just one incidence that confirms that none of his choreographer-contemporaries quite makes the mark when it comes to range. Balanchine cornered the market for abstract ballets to be sure, Tudor was the master for ballets which delve into the psyche and Ashton and Robbins were his equal for sumptuous, breathtaking beauty; but no one else can claim to be as adept at all three. And 20 years on still there is no one. All hail.

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Of Their Time

 

Fonteyn and Nureyev in rehearsal for Marguerite and Armand

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.

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Live Dance

Recording dance has always been contentious. For posterity, most choreographies are now recorded on video, but rarely made commercially available: many argue that dance doesn’t work on video and can only be fully appreciated in live performance. Those creations that are made available to the public are rarely taken from live performance, having usually been tailored in some way to optimise them for camera: one thing that cannot be immortalised on film, however, is the feeling in the auditorium when a dancer truly engages the audience and you can hear a pin drop.

Although musical recordings are more frequent that those of dance, it is difficult too to fully capture the depth and richness of an orchestra. Vinyl recordings give a fuller account, whereas more commonplace digital recordings give a “flattened” version, which diminishes the luxuriance of the original: experiencing the swell of an orchestra is a feeling unlike any other.

The filming of dance has a more recent history than the recording of music. It cannot, to date, adequately display the three-dimensional depth of movement the dance relies on. Take a piece of choreography, anything by Frederick Ashton for example: a reproduced picture on a flat screen is never going to be able to do justice to the original, nuanced torsion of the body. Chemistry is impossible to transfer from stage to celluloid too: in a film, the director will dictate where the audience looks, but on stage, the interplay between the performers must be enough to catch the viewers’ eye. Dance that is choreographed for theatre performance falls short on film as a result.

When specifically created for filming, a piece of choreography can be successful. Abstract dance, which is easier to translate as it’s context is not as important to establish, can be filmed with relative ease. Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds is an example of non-narrative dance which works on film. So too Balanchine’s Jewels; Paris Opera Ballet made a very credible recording in recent years. Narrative dance is more difficult, as there is usually quite a lot going on and sometimes to focus on the storyline is to miss some beautiful choreography.

Recording dance is important: it is used for learning, research and entertainment and without it we would never be able to appreciate the development of dance as it is today through dancers like Rudolf Nureyev and Alla Sizova (in the attached video). With improved technologies it is giving us flawless reproductions of performances: but until it can convey the spine-tingling energy of a living dancer, it will never replace live theatre.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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