A chapter from Following Sir Fred's Steps - Ashton's Legacy, the published proceedings of the conference on the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and his work, held at Roehampton University in 1994, and edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau.
The establishment of a national school of classical ballet depends on the existence of three prerequisites: a great choreographer whose works provide a repertory and define a style; a company (preferably with its own theatre) to present that repertory; and an academy to codify and promote that style and to provide dancers trained in it. The most obvious examples of this combination of circumstances have been in Denmark, with August Bournonville; in Russia, with Marius Petipa; in the United States, with George Balanchine; and here in Britain, with Frederick Ashton.
The works of Bournonville, Petipa, and Balanchine have been maintained (with varying degrees of authenticity), but it is no secret that many people believe that Ashton’s work has been neglected by the company and school whose first responsibility should be to preserve it. The number of his ballets in the repertory of the Royal Ballet has undeniably declined, and in the Royal Ballet School the Russian influence is in the ascendant, while the Cecchetti system, the technical basis of the Ashton style, is in eclipse.
Ashton, like Balanchine, his exact contemporary, was from the beginning a prolific choreographer able to provide on demand works that could make up a well-balanced programme — the kind of programme one used to see at Sadler’s Wells or the New Theatre in the late thirties and early forties: ballets like Apparitions, Nocturne, Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet, Harlequin in the Street, Horoscope, and later Dante Sonata, The Wise Virgins, and The Wanderer. More than that, these ballets, by their technical and interpretive demands, helped to turn young dancers into virtuosi, even into artists, and they formed the basis of what has come to be recognised as the English style of classical ballet, a style expressive of what we like to think of as the English national character — lyrical, precise, well-mannered, yet robust — but flavoured by Latin and Gallic elements in Ashton’s own temperament and background, a certain chic, a certain flamboyance, which counteracted any tendency toward gentility or dowdiness. More seriously, Ashton’s own dance experience — his adoration of Pavlova and Karsavina, his work with Masson and especially with Nijinska, and his study of the Cecchetti system — all contributed to the technical foundation of this English style, giving it greater freedom of épaulement, faster changes of direction, and more amplitude of movement.
In the years following the Sadler’s Wells Ballet’s move to Covent Garden, and especially during Ashton’s tenure as director of what had become the Royal Ballet, from 1963 to 1970, the process continued. Symphonic Variations, which Ashton called his choreographic credo, and the ballets that came after it, constituted a contemporary repertory equalled in its number of masterpieces only by that of New York City Ballet. Margot Fonteyn, Ashton’s muse, later acknowledged as prima ballerina assoluta, was joined by younger artists like Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, Lynn Seymour, David Blair, and Anthony Dowell, most of them the products of the Royal Ballet School, as were the dancers who made up a corps de ballet unrivalled in the Western world.
Ashton’s creativity after his premature, even enforced retirement was diminished in volume, but not in mastery. Yet he often used to predict that before long his works would be considered passé and that most would fall into oblivion. It is true that only a handful of ballets even by the greatest choreographers tend to survive, and that on the whole they are the best ones. But it is also true that in Ashton’s case a number have disappeared too soon, and their neglect may have been due to a feeling among those who took over the direction of the company that these ballets were dated and irrelevant.
In other words, we were taken back to the kind of criticism that Ashton often suffered in his earlier years — that he failed to deal with sufficiently serious subject matter — to which was now added the further condemnation that he was out of touch with contemporary life and its problems. Ashton may have been aware of this stricture when he wrote that ‘ballets about current social happenings . . . [are likely] to date as quickly as yesterday’s newspaper’ (1958, pp. 38—9).
I would be the first to agree that Ashton was often on shaky ground when he tried to be trendy, as in Jazz Calendar. But it is naïve at best to suppose that ballet is brought into the modern world when it concerns, say, the supposedly realistic depiction of sexual acts by people in jeans on a construction site. Apart from the fact that realism of that kind can be carried only so far in dance, the movement possibilities are limited. As someone once said: in ballet, people make love standing on their feet.
In his later years, Ashton’s favourite subject was romantic love, a subject uniquely suited to dance expression. Who is to say that it is less representative of the human spirit than gang rape? I have often quoted Edwin Denby’s observation that ‘the more trivial the subject, the deeper and more beautiful is Ashton’s poetic view of it’ (1986, p. 426). The reverse is true of some choreographers, of whom one could say that the more profound the subject, the more trivial and prosaic is their treatment of it.
In any case, it is not seriousness of subject that makes serious choreography. In my view, the most important developments in the art form have come not from emotional expression but from formal innovation. What I am talking about here, clearly, is what has been called the Great Divide, or what Joan Acocella has termed the quarrel between the adherents of expressive’ and ‘pure’ dance:
One position is that dance is of value insofar as it is tells a story or at least expresses or portrays something in the way that literature or painting might. Opposing this is the view that dance has autonomous value, that it is capable of communicating something on the highest level of meaning through purely dance means, without resorting to imitation of the methods of painting or literature. According to this position, dance communicates as music does. (Acocella & Garafola, 1991, p. 1)
It is generally accepted that this Great Divide is also between Europe on the one hand and America on the other, but it is interesting to note that the two choreographers whom Acocella names as embodying the ‘pure dance’ view are Balanchine, who was American by adoption, and Ashton, sometimes called the most English of choreographers, who nevertheless felt more appreciated in America than at home.
In any case, expressive dance had once again reared its — dare I say? —ugly head in Britain as in Europe, and the damage to Ashton’s reputation, and to the heritage of British ballet, was done. Certain works, of course, survived in the repertory, a handful of acknowledged classics: La Fille mal gardée, The Dream, Cinderella, A Month in the Country. True, Monotones, Ashton’s purest distillation of classicism, also survived, but he himself kept Symphonic Variations out for a number of years for lack of a suitable cast. And this fact pinpoints one of the basic problems: because Ashton’s works were not being danced, nobody could dance them.
There were a few exceptions, of course — the dwindling number of dancers who had worked with him kept certain ballets alive when they were revived — Scènes de ballet, for instance. But too often revivals have looked like carbon copies at best. The last time Enigma Variations was performed by the parent company, one saw dancers wearing the proper clothes and make-up and going through the motions they had learned, but the spirit of the ballet was gone. Roles like the mortal lovers in The Dream and the stepsisters in Cinderella have been performed in inexcusably broad and vulgar fashion. What is significant, though, is that in the hands of the few dancers I have mentioned, keepers of the flame like Lesley Collier and Nicola Roberts and Genesia Rosato, the ballerina roles remained pretty well inviolate. In other words, some part of the dance element survived. It is not the fault of younger dancers that even this dance element often eluded them: they were being asked for other qualities.
If Ashton’s work is to live on as the patrimony of British ballet, it must be because the dance element will be kept alive through constant performance, careful teaching and coaching, and faithful staging. Young dancers must of course be allowed to interpret roles freshly, in their own way — one would not want them to dance them by rote, parrot-fashion, as it were — but at the minimum they will have to get the steps right.
Ashton was a master of structure, both in terms of what he called the ‘scaffolding’, the matching of the action to the music, but also in terms of the dictionary definition, ‘the way in which parts are arranged or put together to form a whole’, the bricks and mortar, if you like, of steps and transitions.
Alastair Macaulay (1994a) reported that people who saw the Birmingham Royal Ballet dance La Fille mal gardée in Turin ‘exclaimed with amazement that never before had they seen ballet with the harmony, structure, and fluency of music — that watching it was like reading a score’. If you look carefully at Scènes de ballet, you will see that there isn’t a single step in it that doesn’t relate to the structure as a whole. This is equally true of unassuming ballets like Les Rendezvous and Les Patineurs —it is what has ensured their survival.
Ashton’s genius is evident at every moment of Daphnis and Chloe, but I will just mention here Chloe’s dance to the flute solo in the third scene, which is built on half a dozen steps, and variations on them: arabesque piquée into failli to fourth position croisée; the ‘folk’ step of slapping the foot with the hand in front or in back, with rond de jambe; pas de bourrée with small développé a la seconde into soutenu; plié in fifth position soussus; little ballonnés on pointe — all varied with different ports de bras and gestures, such as the moment when she holds a pose in fourth position croisée with the arms in an ‘archaic’ Greek position.
This leads me to another important truth about Ashton: we all know that he was a consummate storyteller when he wanted to be, but he told his stories and created his characters through the steps: you know what his people are like and what they are feeling because of how they dance. As Alan M. Kriegsman (1991) has written, ‘Ashton didn’t subject the classical steps to the kinds of radical transfiguration that became Balanchine’s signature’. Ashton’s great innovation was the extension of the classical vocabulary as a poetic language. I would add too that his use of space, especially in his purest dance works, Symphonic Variations and Scènes de ballet and Monotones, was as unconventional in its way as anything in Merce Cunningham. Of Scènes de ballet he said, ‘I... wanted to do a ballet that could be seen from any angle — anywhere could be front, so to speak’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. 222).
Ashton’s work, then, it seems to me, can speak to us as strongly today as it did thirty or forty or fifty years ago. It is classical, and it is modern. And indeed the situation now is more hopeful than it has been. This conference, and the gratifyingly large turn-out for it, are, I hope, both a symptom of and a stimulus to renewed interest in his work. The Ashton revivals at the Royal Ballet, plus Enigma Variations by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, move beyond the usual handful of ballets that have been danced in the past.
This is true with other companies, too: Romeo and Juliet is coming back into the repertory of the Royal Danish Ballet, thanks to Peter Schaufuss. Two Pigeons, which hasn’t been in the Royal repertory lately, I believe, was revived in Turin. The Dutch National Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the National Ballet of Canada have acquired, or will acquire, Symphonic Variations. The Dutch National, where Wayne Eagling looks out for Ashton’s interests, has also revived Scènes de ballet, a rarity among companies other than the Royal, and ABT also revived Birthday Offering a couple of years ago.
Since the death of Robert Joffrey, I’m sorry to say, the company he founded seems to have dropped most of its Ashton repertory, which was the most extensive outside the Royal Ballet — it even included A Wedding Bouquet. But I should like to see more Ashton ballets in American repertories — for instance, Pacific Northwest Ballet or Boston Ballet might have a stab at Scènes de ballet or Rhapsody. Alastair Macaulay (1994b) wrote recently that the Russian companies should also acquire Ashton and Balanchine ballets that use Russian ballet scores, so that they could learn ‘how far their heritage has been absorbed in the West, and with what effect’. There may, inevitably, be some loss of what we might think of as the pure Ashton style, but the gain for those other companies — and for Ashton’s reputation world-wide — would surely be considerable.
The other, related question is that of which ballets could or should be revived. I am resigned to the fact that I will never again see Harlequin in the Street or Mephisto Valse,two ballets I loved — unless it’s in heaven. The reconstruction of Les Masques shown at this conference (see pp. 38—46), a ballet that gave me one of those moments of the shock of recognition of genius when I first saw it in the spring of 1939, gives hope that a revival might be possible. Foyer de danse could easily be revived from the film that exists, and might be an excellent choice for a smaller company like London City Ballet. Les Rendezvous has been out of the repertory for far too long, and I would hate to think that Ashton’s fourth act of Swan Lake, that sublime elegiac poem, will not come back somehow, somewhere. Would it be worthwhile to try again with Apparitions, another ballet that meant a lot to me years ago? The ballroom scene, at least, is a masterpiece. Anthony Russell-Roberts has dropped a tantalising hint that the Royal Ballet may yet revive Sylvia. At all events, some important additions could be made to what one hopes would be the irreducible minimum of extant Ashton works — the Ashton canon. (Clement Crisp has written that he has made a list of thirty Ashton ballets that should be in repertory.)
Having introduced a personal note, I should like to end on it. Years ago, when I was serving in the army in World War II, I had the luck to be stationed in London for a while at the time when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet was giving regular seasons at what was then the New Theatre. Needless to say, that was where I spent my free evenings. It couldn’t last, of course, and before long I was shipped out to India. There I tried to assuage my feeling of deprivation by writing an essay, my first, on Ashton’s work. There was another balletomane in the headquarters in Delhi, and I showed him what I had written. He said, ‘You’re in love with Ashton’s ballets!’ And I realised that he had perceived an important truth about me. It’s why even today I take pleasure in the mere naming of the ballets I have mentioned in the course of this talk — ‘title after title,’ as Virginia Woolf said, ‘to be laid upon the heart like an amulet against disaster.’
E. M. Forster wrote in his essay, ‘The Raison d’Être of Criticism in the Arts’:
I love music. Just to love it, or just to love anything or anybody is not enough. Love has to be clarified and controlled to give full value, and here is where criticism may help. But one has to start with love; one has, in the case of music, to want to hear the notes. (1951, p. 117)
Or, to offer a paraphrase, one has to want to follow Sir Fred’s steps.
Acocella, J. & Garafola, L. (eds) (1991), André Levinson on Dance, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Ashton, F. (1958), ‘The Subject Matter of Ballet’, in A. Haskell (ed.), Ballet Annual 1959, London, A & C Black.
Denby, E. (1986), Dance Writings, London, Dance Books.
Forster, E.M. (1951), Two Cheers for Democracy, London, Edward Arnold.
Kriegsman, A.M. (1991), ‘Ashton’s Royal Treatment’, Washington Post, 16 March 1991.
Macaulay, A. (1994a), ‘Turin falls for “Fille” ‘, Financial Times, 22/23 January 1994.
Macaulay, A. (1994b), ‘Saison Russe’, Dancing Times, September 1994.
Vaughan, D. (1977), Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, London, A & C Black.