A little over a week ago, Opus Arte released a video (in both Blu-ray and DVD formats) of a program of three ballets choreographed by Frederic Ashton performed on a single program at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden on June 7, 2017. Half a century ago, when my writing focused more on dance than on music, I had a colleague who like to say that, in the history of modern ballet, Michel Fokine was the Father, George Balanchine was the Son, and Ashton was the Holy Ghost. This is a bit unfair, since Balanchine first began to work for Sergei Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes in 1924, over a decade after Fokine had left that company, while Ashton was a student of Léonide Massine, whose own Ballets Russes experiences made him more of a “son” to Fokine.
More important is that both Balanchine and Ashton moved on from the Fokine-Massine “axis of modernism” to explore new frontiers, each in a different country, the United States and Great Britain, respectively. My own writing about the dance was influenced more heavily by Balanchine, both through the New York City Ballet, which Balanchine co-founded with Lincoln Kirstein, and other companies that included Balanchine works in their repertoires. Fortunately, the Royal Ballet tended to make regular visits to the United States, through which I came to know and appreciate how Ashton’s approaches were distinctive from Balanchine’s.
Those distinctions can be appreciated through this new video release. In order of performance, the ballets (all consisting of a single act) are “The Dream” (1964), “Symphonic Variations” (1946), and “Marguerite and Armand” (1963). The first and last of these are narrative ballets, “The Dream” being a one-act distillation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and “Marguerite and Armand” drawing upon La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. “Symphonic Variations,” on the other hand, takes its title from César Franck’s 1885 composition for piano and orchestra and amounts to an “abstract” interpretation of Franck’s score. For all three of the performances, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House is conducted by Emmanuel Plasson; and there are two solo pianists, Paul Stobart for “Symphonic Variations” and Robert Clark for “Marguerite and Armand,” which Ashton set to Franz Liszt’s piano sonata, arranged for piano and orchestra by Dudley Simpson.
However, “The Dream,” which was created for a program to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, is definitely the “main attraction” on this release. Using an arrangement by John Lanchbery of music by Felix Mendelssohn (most of which had been composed as incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare’s play), Ashton distilled the rich narrative of Shakespeare’s text down to a bare-bones account of the action that takes place in the enchanted wood outside of the city of Athens. Those who take their Shakespeare seriously might feel that Ashton’s version entails a significant shift from the author’s priorities. Instead of focusing on the complicated relationships among Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius, Ashton sets his narrative in the realm of Oberon and Titania and the intrusions into that realm by not only the two couples but also Bottom and his “rude mechanicals.” This is perfectly consistent with the title that Ashton chose for his ballet, since it is set in the “dream world” of the fairies, rather than the “real world” of Shakespeare’s Athens.
Once we accept Ashton’s premise, the results could not make more perfect sense, at least to those already familiar with Shakespeare’s version. Ashton created the role of Oberon for one of his finest male dancers (many would be happy to delete the “one of”), Anthony Dowell, who played a significant role in staging the revival of “The Dream” and in coaching the dancers. All of the other members of the cast ultimately emerge as reflections of Oberon’s influence, an influence that serves up both darkness and light in equal measure.
Of course, where the light is concerned, Ashton had to establish his own rhetorical devices to compensate for the absence of Shakespeare’s witty linguistic turns. This is particularly effective in his approach to Bottom, who goes up en pointe after his transformation into an ass and then, after returning to human forms, feels around to depict Shakespeare’s “Methought I was, and methought I had” text. Just as interesting, however, is how Mendelssohn’s music is repurposed to serve more “balletic” purposes. Like any good story ballet, “The Dream” serves up a pas de deux after all the complications have been resolved; and, given Ashton’s priorities, that pas de deux is danced by Oberon and Titania. This is set to the “Nocturne” entr’acte from Mendelssohn’s incidental music; and one would be hard-pressed to cite a more satisfying interpretation of a Mendelssohn score.
Taken as a whole, the impact of “The Dream” is so strong that it is hard to avoid disappointment while viewing “Marguerite and Armand.” In theory this would have been a perfect way in which ballet at Covent Garden would reflect opera in the same house. While most visitors to Covent Garden may be only moderately familiar with La Dame aux Camélias, it would be hard to find an opera-goer not familiar with Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. Personally, I have a lot of trouble referring to the principal characters as “Marguerite,” “Armand,” and “Armand’s Father,” preferring, instead, to call them “Violetta,” “Alfredo,” and “Giorgio!” That difficulty is reinforced by the fact that Ashton’s scenario is structured around the same four key episodes found in Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto for Verdi’s opera.
Ashton created the role of Marguerite for Margot Fonteyn, who was partnered by Rudolf Nureyev as Armand. However, if Ashton had intended for Marguerite to be the center of attention, he had underestimated Nureyev’s capacity for upstaging at every opportunity. As a result, my first contact with this ballet, through a television broadcast, was one of great disappointment. This revival performance serves up a more balanced approach to the narrative; and, as a result of that narrative, one can also better appreciate Ashton’s skill in framing the narrative around the complexities of Liszt’s sonata. Nevertheless, “Marguerite and Armand” never rises to that perfect blend of the cerebral and the emotional that breathes so much life into “The Dream.”
By contrast, “Symphonic Variations” is a relatively early effort. There is an old joke that Ninette de Valois (Ashton’s “boss” for much of his tenure with the Royal) liked to complain that choreographers spent far too much time in gramophone shops (record stores). This was intended as a dig at Marie Rambert, who directed a rival ballet company; but it would not surprise me if Ashton first came to know “Symphonic Variations” through a recording.
While Balanchine preferred to get to know his music “from the inside,” often preparing his own piano reductions of orchestral scores, Ashton’s understanding was probably the result of attentive listening, possibly enhanced through conversations with those playing the music. One result is that his setting of “Symphonic Variations” shows a secure grasp of the music structure without consistently homing on the the relationship between that structure and its expressive rhetoric. The result is that the ballet tends to be more abstract than the music; but the abstractions are rich enough, particularly when complemented by Sophie Fedorovitch’s abstract scenic designs, that the performance is still a satisfying one, even if it is not as absorbing as “The Dream.” (Having it follow “The Dream” on the original concert program was probably a bit unfair.)
All this may suggest that it is “The Dream” that makes this video “worth the price of admission;” but there still is much to be appreciated in its account of a broader perspective of Ashton’s work.