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Daphnis and Chloe
Revisiting the Gods


Catherine Hale on the background to one of Ashton's most admired works...





© John Ross

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When Frederick Ashton holidayed in Greece in 1950 its classical splendour and magical light convinced him that “the gods were still alive”. The experience must have reawakened his first entrancements with ballet. Some thirty years earlier his Fate had been decided by seeing Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova dance the paeans to Greek antiquity that were then all the rage. For the trip inspired him to resurrect the long forgotten ballet Daphnis and Chloe from the Diaghilev repertoire of those heady days. For Ashton, it was both a tribute to the glorious spectacle of the Ballets Russes that had shaped his destiny and a celebration of the Hellenic ideal he had rediscovered for himself.

A one act ballet set on an idyllic Greek island, Daphnis and Chloe had looked destined, at least on paper, to be a Diaghilev classic at its premiere in 1912. The winning formula of choreography by Fokine, music by Ravel and designs by Baskt appeared failsafe but in fact the formula had grown sterile and the ballet proved to be a flop. So Ashton's Daphnis for the Sadler's Wells Ballet, premiering in 1951 with Fonteyn and Soames in the title roles, wiped out its memory and became the definitive version. It even had the blessing of Tamara Karsavina, Fokine's original Chloe.

But now, the Royal Ballet's current revival of Daphnis and Chloe restores its debt to Diaghilev. In an inspired piece of programming Daphnis will be seen alongside Ballet Russes legends Spectre de la Rose, L'apres Midi d'un Faun and Les Noces of a whole different historical era but inspired from similar ideals. The anachronism should reveal two things: the enormous weight of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes' influence on the renaissance of ballet in Britain and the West, but also Ashton's singular genius in forging, by 1951, a remarkable balletic blueprint that was unmistakeably British.
 

Federico Bonelli as Daphnis in the latest production
© John Ross


In his choice of ballet, Ashton was aware of the pitfalls of pastiche. Nonetheless, he felt that although turn-of-the-century Greek revivalism had descended into mannerism (“plaster Caryatids and rollicking Cupids”, bemoaned the critic, Roger Fry) the spirit of the classical age was timeless. The story he chose certainly had enduring appeal. Written by Longus in AD, Daphnis and Chloe is a pastoral epic of innocent love and bucolic bliss that evokes nostalgia in jaded city folk of any historical era. The version abridged by Ravel for




“How then to rescue this gem of a ballet from tawdry music hall image it had acquired? Ashton found the answer in the elegance and polish of his classicism.”



     
Diaghilev celebrates the pure, youthful love of a shepherd and shepherdess that triumphs over the wickedness of pirates who kidnap Chloe and the seduction of Daphnis by worldly older woman, Lykanion. All the while, the gentle god Pan keeps a watchful eye on their fate.

How then to rescue this gem of a ballet from tawdry music hall image it had acquired? Ashton found the answer in the elegance and polish of his classicism. Twenty or more years of development as a choreographer had seen him reach the mature heights of his genius with the likes of Symphonic Variations, five years earlier.

But, while the bulk of Daphnis is unadulterated classicism, like Fokine, Ashton also sought to add an authenticity of time and place. For the worship at Pan's grotto he derived his own Greek naturalism of frieze-like poses drawn from bas reliefs and sculptures as well as living folk dances of Crete and Greece that he probably observed on holiday. The ending, too, was based on a folk dance with handkerchiefs.

The touch of local colour was complimented by the contemporary designs of established neo-romantic painter, John Craxton, who lived, worked and took his inspiration from modern-day Greece, not from faux-classical references.
 

from the 2004 production
© John Ross


However, Ashton's success in achieving the timeless ideals he strived for was disputed. During its US tour in 1953 the critic PW Manchester declared Daphnis “a work of surpassing beauty, tenderness and excitement” in which Fonteyn and Soames “touched perfection”. But its earlier UK reception had been frostier and it wasn't ranked as an Ashton vintage alongside ballets like Symphonic Variations, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales or a Wedding Bouquet. Will the benefit of hindsight and the revelation of historical context reposition our judgement?

Federico Bonelli and Inaki Urlezaga will dance the rather heroically-challenged part of Daphnis, the lover boy who languishes in a faint while his abducted inamorata risks ravishing by pirates. Alina Cojocaru and Miyako Yoshida face the greater, indeed the ultimate, challenge of interpreting the role of Chloe, created by and immortalised by Fonteyn. Thiago Soares and Martin Harvey dance the secondary, but more colourful male role of Dorkon, the rambunctious




“One stumbling block for the ballet's early critics was its music.

“It was considered simply too good.”



     
rival to Daphnis for Chloe's affections. The flirtatious temptress Lykanion, originally danced with sultry charm by Julia Farron and Violetta Elvin, will be shared by Marianela Nunez and Laura Morera.

One stumbling block for the ballet's early critics was its music. It was considered simply too good. Ravel's score for Daphnis “has to be one of the most beautiful scores that's ever been written”, according to Antoinette Sibley, who succeeded Fonteyn as Chloe. “From the moment you enter the stage it's sublime... It carries you along like the sea... like the wind, like that hot languorous day. It's like nature itself”. Yet its very perfection made it risky to choreograph. With its dawn-of-the-world shimmer already saturating the stage, was dance not a needless embellishment?

Critics did credit Ashton's wisdom in pulling back and letting the music tell the story at some of its most luxuriant moments, rather than trying to match them with unctuous moves. For example, when Pan rescues Chloe from imprisonment in the pirates' cave, the music “swells with such sublime ecstasy and fulfilment, contentment, relief, total happiness” affirmed Sibley. Pan simply walks in with god-like sedateness, carrying her off on his shoulder. For some it made Ashton a genius of less-is-more musical sensitivity, while for others it simply indicated the ballet's choreographic weakness in playing second fiddle to the score.

If Ravel's score was awash with emotional colour like a painting, Craxton's designs for the stage repaid the compliment to music. “I wanted the colours to form chords as in music”, he said. The opening scene of the ballet is a landscape of stark blue sky and ochreous sun-baked hills with Pan's grotto in the foreground, where peasant couples are paying solemn homage. It has “fissures of black, as if the dark mystery within is breaking through” described art critic Jill Bowden.
 

Jamie Tapper as Chloe and Federico Bonelli as Daphnis
© John Ross


Craxton's designs, the distillation of five years' observation of Greek landscape, “had that lovely warm glowing feeling of Greece”, according to Michael Soames. They were quite different to Baskt's imaginary ancient Greece of gracious glades and gentle cypresses. Yet it seems Daphnis' early audiences didn't fully appreciate Craxton's veracity (before Greece's package holiday popularity few would have known it first hand) and his sometimes Spartan geometry.

But the biggest sticking point was Craxton's costumes – an area that his painterly skill seems to have got lost on. Both Ashton and Craxton wanted to dispense with the Bohemian kitsch of Greek revivalism (“people running around in tunics, and veils and scarves” as Ashton put it) in favour of authentic modern dress, worn, presumably, by 1950s Greek shepherds. So the men wore simple shirts and trousers and women zippered pink cotton frocks and pink ballet shoes (perhaps the fatal anomaly), rather than dirndls and bare feet or sandals. But the look was regrettably “Brighton beach” according to one anonymous reviewer in the Dancing Times. “Pirates of Penzance” objected another.

That was probably the reason Anthony Dowell scrapped Craxton's designs and commissioned new designs by Martyn Bainbridge for Daphnis and Chloe's 1994 revival. Only when lamenting Bainbridge's “cheap travel brochure” take on Greece did the critics become nostalgic for the Craxton originals. But this year they're back, fully restored.

Rightly so, for by all accounts the essence of Daphnis and Chloe is not to be found in choreography alone but in the blessed union of feeling between music, design and dance that Ashton orchestrated. And some might say that Fonteyn




“Charming, naïve and vivacious like the best of Ashton's heroines, Chloe is a peach of a role according to Sibley.”



     
as Chloe was an inextricable part of the magic.

Charming, naïve and vivacious like the best of Ashton's heroines, Chloe is a peach of a role according to Sibley. She even vowed to Ashton that if she could dance it every day of her life and not have to suffer the nerves of Sleeping Beauty she wouldn't have to be paid. Chloe has two exquisite solos in the ballet: one of despair and supplication in the pirates' cave, where she tries to wind her wrists free of the imprisoning rope, the other rejoicing at her reunion with Daphnis.

Fonteyn's unique radiance and matchless musicality made her a perfect instrument for Ravel's complex score. For dancers used to counting in threes or fours or eights it was difficult to have to count seven in the first scene, and five at the end. “The rhythms often go across the music” explained Soames But “I don't think (Margot) and I ever counted our music because she and I had the kind of ear that could listen to the music and know it by ear. She fitted the music so beautifully that it looked absolutely natural... very few people could master it like she did”.

Mary Clarke wrote that Fonteyn had a way of expressing vulnerability through the line of her arabesque that eluded later Chloes Sarah Wildor, and Miyako Yoshida despite, or perhaps because of, their more accomplished technique. Perhaps Cojocaru's immaculate freshness will breathe new life into this enchanted role.

Ashton may have attempted the impossible with Daphnis and Chloe. His combination of authentic local idiom and timeless classicism perplexed critics who wanted it to be one or the other. But the atmosphere for this revival will




Daphnis and Chloe contains Ashton's soul. “It was very, very difficult” he later confessed, “and I had to dig deep inside myself to do it”.



     
surely be intoxicating. Not least because of its positioning against the monument of Diaghilev. In the reverberation of influences the history of British ballet history will live in the flesh for a few brief and precious moments. But also because, despite its shortcomings, Daphnis and Chloe contains Ashton's soul. “It was very, very difficult” he later confessed, “and I had to dig deep inside myself to do it”. What better introduction to the celebrations later this year for the centenary of his birth?

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