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Symphonic Variations

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'Symphonic Variations' was planned as the then Sadler's Wells Ballet's first creation after they moved to the Royal Opera House in 1946. It didn't quite work out like that, as the première had to be postponed to allow Michael Somes to recover from an injury, but it still stood for the company's taking possession of their new stage and the step up in their status and prestige. So what did Ashton do? From anyone else you'd expect a big celebration piece, getting the whole company on to demonstrate how they could fill the huge stage - an opera-scaled production for the Opera House. Not Ashton, though; he didn't conquer the stage by flooding it with a busy corps de ballet, but by staking it out with just 6 dancers to create a sublime masterpiece which also defines the essence of his style.

Thousands of words have been written about the origins of the piece. If you're interested there are pages about it in Julie Kavanagh's Ashton biography, giving all sorts of theories about spiritual, sexual, religious and all sorts of other influences - but you don't actually need to know any of this. There was originally a quite complicated scenario, which Ashton gradually simplified during the long rehearsal period until there was virtually nothing left. Many people, if pressed, would admit to seeing some vestige of a 'winter awakened by spring' idea; and Ashton once agreed with someone who said 'It's about the morning of the world' - but equally you can just see it as these people dancing to this music, and providing us with a glimpse of heaven.

The ballet grew from Ashton's love for the music - Cesar Frank's Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra - and there is, again, much to be said about how he uses the music, particularly about the different ways in which the choreography responds to the piano and to the orchestra. But again, you don't need to know all this to appreciate how the dancing seems to grow out of the music, looking - like all great choreography - as if Ashton had discovered the steps rather than inventing them.

Sophie Fedorovitch's backcloth is the perfect setting, matching and enhancing Ashton's choreography in its simplicity and elimination of every unnecessary detail. She uses a light clear green with a dozen or so black lines; as William Chappell, himself a designer, described it 'She creates boundless space and controls it gently by the few dark graph lines'. Ashton and Fedorovitch were close friends and worked together often - 'Symphonic Variations' is the most perfect of their collaborations.

The first cast - Fonteyn, Shearer, May, Somes, Shaw and Danton - has been immortalised in some of the most famous and beautiful ballet photographs ever taken. Since the ballet lasts about 20 minutes and none of the dancers ever leaves the stage, it is a killer to dance - particularly as it must give the impression of perfect ease. There are stories of dancers lying sobbing on the floor at rehearsals, and subsequent generations have not found it any easier. The best replacements for the originals have been dancers notable for their musicality and line - Sibley, Park and Dowell not surprisingly outstanding. The main problems in casting today stem from the gradual loss of the Ashton tradition (if you want to know what the English line looked like, look at Bruce Sansom), and also from the fact that the ballet is now so famous and so surrounded by performance legend that dancers sometimes approach it with a mixture of fear and piety that makes it look more like a funeral wake than a celebration of youth and life. Properly cast it is a ballet that I could watch forever; one of the great landmarks of our dance history.

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