Cover of the original release of the video of the staged version of Tales of Beatrix Potter (from the Amazon.com Web page)
Last month I discussed how I planned to write about the second volume of The Frederic Ashton Collection in three separate articles, one for each of the full-evening ballet performances by The Royal Ballet in the release. The ballet I covered on that occasion was Sylvia, based on recordings of performances that took place at the Royal Opera House on December 1 and 5, 2005. This afternoon I finally had the occasion to view another of the ballets in the volume, Tales of Beatrix Potter, this one based on recorded performances on December 23 and 27, 2007. I should also remind readers that this second volume in the series is available in both Blu-ray and DVD formats; however, in this particular case, the fact that the video was based on staged performances provides a significant point of departure.
Unlike any other ballet that Ashton created, Tales of Beatrix Potter was conceived as a film. Ashton’s intention seemed to be to bring to life not only the narratives of the tales themselves but also the visual impressions of Potter’s own illustrations, that were equally essential in her approach to storytelling. One should thus begin by crediting Christine Edzard, who not only developed the overall narrative of the entire film with her husband Richard Goodwin but also provided designs that would translate Potter’s two-dimensional artwork into three-dimensional costumes for the dancers that would realize Ashton’s choreography.
I also feel it important to note that this is a ballet in which the music is decidedly secondary to both the narrative itself and the visualization of that narrative. John Lanchbery’s score is pastiche unto an extreme. The Wikipedia page for the film cites Arthur Sullivan and Michael Balfe as sources, but they are two among many. Unless my ears deceived me, there was a least one reference to music by Léo Delibes that was familiar to the orchestra by another ballet; and my guess is that Jacques Offenbach was also lurking in the mix. There was also an abundance of what might be called “music hall standards,” more recognizable through their structural idioms than by the tunes themselves.
The film was released in 1971, and I have lost count of the number of times I have gone to see it screened. While Ashton never saw Tales of Beatrix Potter as a ballet that could be transferred to the stage, Anthony Dowell did just that in 1992, assisted by Edzard. This is the version whose performance is now part of The Frederick Ashton Collection. Most important is that Dowell did not try to make the staged performance mirror the filmed one. The episodes that relate the tales have been reordered; and, for the most part, the action has been reconceived to deal with the constraints of performance on the stage, rather than the capture-and-edit process of filmmaking.
As a result, for one who has seen the film as often as I have, the staged version is an entirely new ballet. Most of the overall narrative is intact; but the details have been retuned to suit the new context. Furthermore, the performance is by an entirely new generation of dancers, providing a fresh perspective on the narrative as it was originally realized.
For the most part I found the new approach satisfying. The hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (originally danced by Ashton himself) had less to do; but, on the other hand, there was more tension in the effort of The Fox (Gary Avis) to seduce (and, we assume, ultimately consume) Jemima Puddle-Duck (Gemma Sykes). Furthermore, the havoc wrought by the “two bad mice,” Tom Thumb (Giacomo Ciriaci) and Hunca Munca (Iohna Loots), made for a first-rate joy ride from start to finish.
The only difference that really registered with me involved the frog Jeremy Fisher (Zachary Faruque). This role was danced by Michael Coleman in the film. Just about everyone I know who saw that film found that episode a welcome relief by offering up an agile pair of legs in tights instead of limbs carrying considerably thick fur! Dowell’s version seemed to allow for more attention to dexterous leg-work, which somewhat blunted the “shock value” of the choreography for Fisher.
The bottom line is that I have no desire to prefer one version of this choreography over the other. Dowell’s reconception meant that choosing between the versions would be like comparing apples and oranges. Most important is that the spirit of Ashton’s wit is as strong in Dowell’s version as it was in the original film. Dowell just happened to channel it in a few different directions for the sake of a more compelling stage performance.