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Ondine - some background history

Ondine was Frederick Ashton's last three-act ballet, created in 1958 for the Royal Ballet and especially for Margot Fonteyn. Someone described it as 'a concerto for Fonteyn', and certainly at its first performances most of the attention was concentrated on her. Other ballerinas danced it a few times, but it is really only since Anthony Dowell persuaded Ashton to allow him to stage a revival, thirty years later, that we have been able to see the ballet plainly, without the magic and mystique of the prima ballerina dazzling our eyes.

The story derives from Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's tale of a water-nymph who marries a mortal (she was called Undine in the original, but Ashton changed the names of all the characters). Ondine makes her first entrance from a fountain, shivering in the cold air as we would in water. She meets the hero, Palemon, and is astonished when she feels his heartbeat - ondines don't have hearts. He deserts Berta, who he's been courting, and marries Ondine; but she goes back to the sea and only returns when Palemon, believing her lost, is about to marry Berta. Because of his unfaithfulness he dies when Ondine kisses him, and she takes him back to the sea for ever.

The whole of the ballet is filled with images of water and particularly of the sea. The ballerina's role is indeed the main focus, but there is a divertissement in the last act which gives opportunities for classical dancing to a number of soloists, and there is some spectacular choreography for Tirrenio, the Lord of the Mediterranean Sea. (He is actually Ondine's uncle, but that doesn't sound nearly so romantic.) The hero is a rather passive character, and Berta is probably a more rewarding role - she is one of the line of bitchy fiancées in which ballet seems to abound. There are some famous effects, like the waterfall of corps de ballet girls in the second scene, and the shipboard scene in Act ll (beautifully framed by designer Lila de Nobili); the most fondly remembered passage is probably Ondine's dance with her shadow, which is also an echo of the original Ondine ballet, written by Jules Perrot for Fanny Cerrito in 1843. Not all of the choreography is Ashton's finest - the opening dance of the huntsmen, for instance, has always struck me as weak - but everything for the heroine is of the highest order, and there is much of beauty even outside her role.

The music for Ondine was commissioned from Hans Werner Henze, who was a friend of Ashton's, and who went to considerable lengths to learn the special requirements of writing for ballet. Ashton gave him a very detailed breakdown of the action, with precise timings for each section - like Petipa did for Tchaikowsky - but it can't be ignored that Ashton found the resulting score uninspiring. He was constantly nagging his composer for 'more tunes', and in the end he found he had to build his choreography by skill and craftsmanship rather than being swept along by the inspiration of the music as he preferred. These days Henze's music seems much more accessible. It is little known outside the ballet theatre, but has recently been championed by the conductor/composer Oliver Knussen, who has given concert performances of the complete score and also made a fine recording, which should help to make it much more widely appreciated.

Nadia Nerina and Svetlana Beriosova shared the leading role with Fonteyn in the early days - a thankless task, you might well think, though each brought her own, different, qualities to the role. A number of the Royal Ballet's younger dancers were tried out in the revived version: Maria Almeida was the first cast, and later on Viviana Durante gave a fine reading of the role, particularly in the last act. Later revivals have seen interesting, and very different, performances from Sarah Wildor, Tamara Rojo and Miyako Yoshida, and Alina Cojocaru makes her debut in this season's run.

The photograph of Frederick Ashton which appears at the top of each page is copyright Leslie E. Spatt - click here to see the full version.

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