The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
August 8, 2016
A Knight of the British Ballet:
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, The Walk to the Paradise Garden,
Jazz Calendar/Friday’s Child, Sinfonietta/2nd Movement, Façade
Prior to 2014, few people outside the Florida Gulf Coast had heard of Sarasota Ballet. But under the leadership of Artistic Director Iain Webb since 2007, the company gradually accumulated a repertory of ballets created by Sir Frederick Ashton, and exploded onto the international ballet radar screen in 2014 with a gushed-over Ashton Festival – four programs of Ashton ballets, many of which are rarely seen anywhere much less on this side of the pond. For its premiere engagement at the Joyce Theater, and in celebration of Sarasota’s 25th anniversary as a professional ballet company, Webb has brought a mini Ashton festival of sorts, collectively titled A Knight of the British Ballet, consisting of pieces, or excerpts of pieces, from that 2014 Festival as well as others that Sarasota added to its repertoire thereafter. It’s a marvelous program that must be seen by anyone interested in Ashton or in seeing something of a ballet time capsule, not only because it illuminates the breadth of Ashton’s creative oeuvre, but also because the ballets are fun to watch.
Those who have read my reviews of Ashton pieces recently presented by American Ballet Theatre know some of his pieces, by current standards and expectations, now come across to me as fussy and prissy (his Sylvia) or seem dated (Monotones I and II, ballets that I’d previously adored) – while some remain undeniable masterpieces (La Fille Mal Gardee). The Sarasota program did nothing to change that – some dances look overly fussy, and others look dated. Time passes; it happens. Others look fantastic and ahead of their time. That happens too. But seeing Ashton pieces I’ve never before seen shows – regardless of current sensibilities – what a wonderfully creative choreographer he was. They also unearth a few works of art that remain as extraordinary now as they must have appeared when new.
Unless they were created to serve as standalone pieces in addition to being part of a more comprehensive whole, or have choreographic and entertainment value that can be separated from the overall context, I usually don’t like “excerpts.” Out of context, one has no idea (unless there’s already familiarity with the larger piece) what the choreographer is trying to do. But the excerpts from Jazz Calendar and Sinfonietta not only have significant individual merits, they are particularly illuminating in terms of their relationship to Monotones. And seeing these excerpts has led me to rethink my rethinking of that extraordinary pair of pieces.
Monotones was created in 1965 for the Royal Ballet, and at the time exemplified Ashton at his modernist best. Its abstract depiction of one woman and two men as sort of celestial bodies in space, coupled with the Satie score (Trois Gymnopédies), must have been considered avant-garde at the time. I recall being very much impressed by it when the Joffrey presented it in the mid-1970s – but with the recent ABT revival, it looked dated; modern art that is no longer modern. With the success of Monotones, Ashton created another similar ballet the following year, for two women and one man, also to Satie (Trois Gnossiennes). It became Monotones I; the original became Monotones II. But it appears that Ashton experimented with the Monotones ‘style’, albeit in different musical contexts, in other pieces during the same period. And seeing these other pieces reemphasized what was always great about Monotones – and showed that my reaction to the recent ABT performances I saw perhaps had less to do with the ballets than with the execution of them.
A year after creating what became Monotones I, Ashton choreographed Sinfonietta to the composition by English composer Sir Malcolm Williamson CBE (not the one by Janacek that is the basis for the ballet by Jiri Kylian) for the Royal Ballet touring company. The program notes indicate that the piece is most notable for its central sequence, the second movement, subtitled Elegy. I cannot comment on that, not having seen the full piece, but the excerpt is marvelous on its own. The music, though obviously not the same as that for either of the Monotones pieces, is similarly atmospheric, and Ashton’s choreography, abetted by the similar looking unitards and headpieces, is almost as cosmic in its serenity and movement purity. But significantly, as a consequence of Ashton’s utilizing five men to partner the lone woman rather than two as in Monotones II, Elegy looks more physical than the earlier pieces while maintaining the Monotones otherworldly aura: the men manipulate the ballerina over, under, around, and through some or all of them at any given time. She also, at various points, is passed from man to man, the men’s hand grip positions alternating so she never touches the floor, or via sequential overhead lifts that also keep her aloft. The increased degree of physicality deepens the impact, and makes it much more interesting – essentially taking Monotones to another level. And the cast was wonderful. The piece was led by Victoria Hulland, who was spectacularly stoic as she was being man-handled (literally) seemingly in multiple directions at once. The men, led by Ricardo Rhodes and including David Tlaiye, Jamie Carter, Daniel Rodriguez, and Daniel Pratt, were skillful porters.
Jazz Calendar was created a year later, and in the excerpt presented, which was originally danced by Antoinette Sibley and Rudolf Nureyev, the same basic style is juiced up again, this time into a jazzy, bluesy duet (to music by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett) in the piece’s Friday’s Child segment. Of course, Ashton choreographed many romantic pas de deux, but I can’t recall another being as sensual. It’s considerably less obvious and edgy than the Rubies segment of Jewels that Balanchine choreographed to a jazzy Stravinsky score – Friday’s Child, by contrast, is a “cool” heat, but the movement quality, coupled with Derek Jarman’s blue and red set and costumes (one side of the unitard and Monotone-like cap is red, the other blue, but on opposite sides, so when the dancers face each other, the audience sees red…or blue) is scintillating nonetheless. My understanding is that the other Jazz Calendar’s segments, corresponding to the nursery rhyme’s days of the week, are necessarily different, and again, not having seen the full piece, I can’t comment on their quality. But Friday’s Child is superb. And it was given delicious performances by Ellen Overstreet and Edward Gonzalez.
The other pieces on the program were not as interesting to me, but were performed very well by the well-trained and coached Sarasota Ballet dancers. The evening opened with Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, a ballet that Ashton choreographed in 1947 from the score that Ravel first presented anonymously in a 1911 Paris competition. Ravel’s focus on the waltz form culminated in 1919 with La Valse. Balanchine used both compositions for his much more dramatic – even melodramatic – La Valse, and the Balanchine piece makes such an indelible impression that by comparison, the Ashton ballet – essentially a series of pretty pictures bathed in a red-tinted Deco-like set – can’t match it. But, though a bit too cute for my taste (I really didn’t need the twisted hand movements with which Ashton punctuates several movement sequences), the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales segments flow together brilliantly, with a staging ingenuity and fluidity that is quite remarkable. The costumes, except for the corps men, are lovely, and the set – a trio of curtained dividers, with the central one far larger than the other two – is woven into the choreographic pattern ingeniously. While not particularly adventurous, it’s a lovely piece of work. Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano danced the lead couple (converted into a pas de trois on occasion with the addition of one of the corps men) with just the right balance of vivacity and refinement. Except for certain partnering issues, the remainder of the cast excelled as well.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee and The Walk to the Paradise Garden, together with the two excerpts already discussed, comprised the mid-section of the program. Both pieces are interesting as examples of the breadth of Ashton’s creativity, but I suspect, if I saw them frequently, I’d quickly tire of them despite how well-crafted they are.
The Walk to the Paradise Garden, an apparent distillation and somewhat quirky retelling of Romeo and Juliet, premiered with the Royal Ballet in 1972. It’s a curiosity now, and possibly was then, because it’s so strange – both in the story, such as it is, and the visualization of it. Essentially, the ballet has two components: The choreographed relationship between the two lovers, which is a given from the beginning; and their deaths, staged as a sort of magnetic attraction (for unspecified reasons; it just is) to a Death figure, who the lovers decide to succumb to willingly and concurrently (for unspecified reasons; it just is).
Part of the reason it’s strange-looking is because it isn’t exactly what it appears to be. It’s not a distillation of Romeo and Juliet, but a distillation of a retelling of the story that, except for feuding families and the outcome that the two lovers die, is different from the play in many ways. Indeed, the ballet’s characters are identified only as “lovers,” not as Romeo and Juliet. The composition by Frederick Delius that Ashton uses here is an excerpt (with the same title as the Ashton ballet) from an opera titled (in English) A Village Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in Germany in 1907 (and in England in 1910). The story isn’t exactly the same (though obviously a take on the Shakespeare play), but it’s this story that Ashton distills – the death figure in Ashton’s piece is the “Dark Fiddler” in the opera; and the two lovers decide to die together, as do Sali and Vrenchen, the lovers in the opera.
My initial reaction to the piece was that it was so distilled and emotionally muted (beautifully crafted stuff, but as quiet and comfortable as an easy chair that’s easy to fall asleep in) that it became matter-of-fact – until the emotions finally reached a crescendo, but by then it was too little too late. There was no chance to build sympathy: it just was. Even the Death figure just stands there (well, ok, he opens his cape like a gate, essentially inviting the lovers to consider migrating to his world). It’s like watching images in a minimalist painting that occasionally move. But seeing it for what it really is supposed to be makes it more comprehensible, with a particularly beautiful choreographic detail that compellingly illustrates the lovers’ decision to die together.
However, some of the choreography for the two lovers is noteworthy not only because it’s finally grows passionate but because it clearly shows where some of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreographic ideas for his Romeo and Juliet came from. It’s well known that for his incarnation of the ballet, MacMillan drew inspiration from John Cranko’s earlier version. Apparently he drew inspiration from Ashton too. As the passion finally increases, Ashton has his Romeo surrogate lift Juliet and turn her so that she hangs upside down in front of him – almost identical to one of the images in MacMillan’s piece. Even more obvious is that when they’re horizontal on the stage floor, he has his Romeo push Juliet up so she’s parallel to him, and then lets her down to his body, and then repeats the action – one of MacMillan’s key romantic phrases (except in MacMillan’s ballet, Romeo is kneeling rather than supine). Macmillan injected considerably more passion into these sequences (consistent with the more passionate Prokofiev score), but the framework is the same. Brown and Graziano do a fine job as the lovers.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee is Ashton being funny. It’s not belly laugh funny, it’s neat as a pin, stiff upper-lip funny, but it works very well. Alex Harrison, Logan Learned, and Samantha Benoit were cute and lovable in the roles of the Tweedle twins and Alice, originally played by Graham Fletcher, Wayne Sleep, and Lesley Collier. (I remember Sleep and Collier very well from their performing days, and envy those who were able to see them in this, or anything else).
The evening’s disappointment for me was the final piece on the program, Façade. It’s not that there isn’t anything to commend it, there’s lots. There’s just nothing in it to get excited about. It’s what to me is typical Ashton choreographic precision and perfection, but nothing that touches the heart. The individual skits (the score, by William Walton was originally created in 1923 to illuminate a suite of poems by Edith Sitwell) reflect the musical pastiche – much of it is clever, some of it is funny, and with its art deco/roaring twenties roots on full display, most of it is quite entertaining. Quite the good time. But it’s distant, with, to me, no enduring value (compare it with Balanchine’s time-specific, but also timeless, Who Cares?) – and although the ingredients are there, it’s much too straightforward to be considered (after the fact) camp. If you will, it’s a façade. It reportedly hasn’t been out of the Royal Ballet rep since it premiered (with the Camargo Society) in 1931– perhaps it just doesn’t travel well.
Of the seven skits (plus a grand finale), I most enjoyed Polka, with Hulland as an underdressed, sensual but at the same time adorable flapper, Valse (with Amy Wood, Christine Windsor, Elizabeth Sykes, and Overstreet), and the tightly-funny, nicely-played Tango-Pasodoble, with Brown and Tlaiye taking aim at bad tango takeoffs.
Regardless of how they impressed me individually, this is a wonderful, and valuable, collection of Ashton pieces that not only is entertaining and well-executed, but that fills a void. Congratulations are in order for Webb, a former Royal Ballet principal; Margaret Barbieri, the company’s Assistant Director and also former Royal Ballet principal (and Webb’s wife), who did most of the stagings; and the highly capable Sarasota Ballet dancers.