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Marguerite and Armand

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Ashton's Marguerite and Armand opened on March 12th 1963 amidst a deluge of publicity unimaginable these days. Everything Fonteyn and Nureyev did was hot, hot news, and this was not only the first ballet written specially for them, but also a passionate love story, giving infinite scope for speculation about how much it reflected the offstage relationship of the two stars. Fifty photographers attended the dress rehearsal, there were twenty one curtain calls at the first night...and somewhere underneath all this was a ballet, which in the last few years we've seen again, without the two who inspired it.

Ashton had been planning the ballet for some time. Even before Nureyev appeared on the scene he had seen it as providing another great role for Fonteyn (though at one stage he had considered Manon instead, which would have changed the company's history somewhat), and when he happened on a recording of the perfect music - two piano pieces by Liszt - he immediately saw the whole thing: it was to be a highly condensed version of the familiar Dame aux Camellias story, a capsule version - but a capsule 'strong enough to kill'. The ballet starts with Marguerite on her deathbed, and the story is told in flashback until the moment Armand arrives to hold her for the last time before she dies.

Commentators have identified many different influences in the ballet: Garbo's Camille, Kabuki, Last Year in Marienbad, and - most of all - Ashton's ever-present adoration of Pavlova. Whatever mixture of these went into it, the result was a ballet unique in Ashton's output - the most overtly passionate, and the closest he came to a Romantic work. The reviews of the first performances are extraordinary to read: critics talk of a frightening, almost embarassing intensity in the scenes between the two lovers - much what one might expect from Nureyev, but taking Fonteyn to a new peak of dramatic art. Her partnership with Nureyev provided the emotional background, and Ashton provided the means, through which she could finally let herself abandon her last layer of reserve onstage and give a performance which even she might not have thought she had in her.

Fonteyn and Nureyev in Marguerite and Armand
Photographer Cecil Beaton

Aside from the two principals, the rest of the ballet is deliberately shadowy. The only other role of any importance is that of Armand's father, played originally by Michael Somes and later by Leslie Edwards and others. Cecil Beaton's sets are non-realistic and the changes of scene are made mostly by altering the lighting; blown-up photographs of the two stars were projected onto screens - Nicolas Le Riche's picture now replaces Nureyev's.

Until the recent revival, most people knew Marguerite and Armand from the video and film versions, made years after the premiere and showing an adapted version of what was seen on stage. To avoid invidious comparisons, I think it's important to remember that the performances of both Fonteyn and Nureyev in the ballet's early days were far more powerful and moving than those we see on film. The question remains, of course, of whether Ashton would have wanted the ballet revived at all. It is certain that - for various reasons - he was originally entirely against anyone else taking the leading roles; some say that he changed his mind before he died, but no-one has yet produced chapter and verse for this. Although some people still believe it should not have been done, in at least the early performances of the revival the ballet did come to life again. Sylvie Guillem, wisely, doesn't attempt to imitate Fonteyn, and finds her own way to the role, and Le Riche has more of Nureyev's presence and glamour than his successors have shown. But the electric excitement and drama of the ballet's earliest days have gone, perhaps for ever.

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