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FLOSS

Do both Royal Ballet Companies have an ambivalent attitude towards the Ashton repertory?

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It strikes me that neither Royal Ballet company shows as much enthusiasm for programming the works of their founder choreographer as you might expect given the quality of his ballets, Is it a feeling of ambivalence akin to that experienced,at one time, by the Danes  towards their Buornonville legacy that is the root cause of the comparative neglect of Ashton's works?

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there are 2 'mixed' bills with his work next season at ROH (Two Pigeons rivival with Monotones or Rhapsody), they toured to USA in June with The Dream, there was a wholly Ashton mixed bill last season; combine that with the clamour for new work especially by the plethora of resident and semi-resident choreographers, the need to put on 'the classics' of Tchaikovsky/Petipa, MacMillan works, things like Onegin, all in 12 bills a season, I don't think the Ashton rep does that badly.

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Perhaps it's because not many dancers these days can dance his ballets as he choreographed them and as he would have wished?

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I think this is a very interesting question. Had you asked me about 5 years ago I would have said that the charge definitely did not apply to BRB. Given that the company does not have access to a significant portion of the Ashton rep, e.g. Cinderella, Sylvia, Ondine, Rhapsody being examples off the top if my head, it should be remembered that we had Daphnis and Chloe paired with Two Pigeons only 3 years ago, a triple of rare(ish) Ashton works from the 30s and a very successful revival of Symphonic Variations.

 

I would also nominate Tombeau, Bintley's homage and lament for Ashton as one of his very finest works. We are finally getting A Month in the Country with The Dream and Fille never being that long out of the rep. Enigma is being shown in October and this is a work which has suited BRB very well.

 

However, I do feel that there is a slight feeling that the Ashton rep is not getting quite the same respect it has had previously. Whether this is influenced by box office appeal or as was suggested above, a diminishing number of Ashton suited dancers I cannot say. The other thing I would point to is less coaching by great Ashton specialists.

 

As has been said a number of times on these boards, Ashton is overshadowed by Macmillan at Covent Garden who has a very effective and powerful advocate. BRB tends to be dominated by the works of David Bintley and I feel that the Ashton rep comes in rushes and then vanishes for a while.

 

We have 3 of his greatest in the next 6 months and the company undoubtedly has very good potential Ashton dancers, Will Bracewell and Delia Matthews instantly come to mind. If the works are presented with care and respect the shows should be terrific. If they are not I, for one, will be bitterly disappointed.

 

At least David Bintley has not jumped on the current bandwagon and gone for performances if Marguerite and Armand. We don't have the dancers to do that work full justice. Yet.

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I was listening to the local classical music station on the car radio today and they started playing Pineapple Poll, and I was struck by the lightness, precision, and speed of the music, all things that I also associate with Ashton choreography (even though I know he didn't do Pineapple Poll). I think Sullivan is another creator like Ashton whose virtues are just not appreciated nowadays. That sort of subtlety and understated wit, and the fine line between a great performance and a sorry mess, doesn't really resonate with today's culture, which seems to celebrate the more easily accessible, the exciting and dramatic, preferably with borderline overt sex and the self-expression of the performers, and is less interested in complex performances that look a lot more effortless than they actually are. We might deplore the high extensions and six-o'clock penchees in classical and romantic works, but apparently that's what turns modern audiences on.

 

Unfortunately I don't think it's just that MacMillan ballets have a strong advocate in Lady MacMillan, I think it's that MacMillan ballets reflect the times better than Ashton ballets, although the lack of a committed advocate for Ashton isn't helping. Then again, I assume the Royal Ballet could import one if it was considered that important. I know a lot of people here don't agree with me, but I think a decade of Monica Mason - a MacMillan specialist - following the short but rather destructive tenure of Ross Stretton (when some Ashton specialists left in disgust), together with the recent trend toward imported stars rather than home-grown principals and the morphing of the RBS into a Vaganova-based school, have all combined to remake the Royal Ballet into a company not particularly suited to Ashton any more.

Edited by Melody
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As an addendum to my previous mail, I cannot see any reason whatsoever for BRB's failure to present Les Patineurs for more tears than I can remember. The piece is an utter joy from start to finish and goes down well with audiences. Mind you, I am not convinced that Sir Fred would have recognise his vision of Les Rendezvous from some of the performances we had last year. It wasn't just the dreadful redesigns and lighting. One of the dancers in the Markova role was so adrift from the style the part requires I could have wept.

Edited by Two Pigeons
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The introduction of Vaganova to the school goes back to Dame Merle's directorship. When the new director was appointed  he said that he was concerned by the emphasis on technique that seemed to be prevalent across the dance world and that he wanted to shift the emphasis onto performance and artistry.Now the interesting thing is that even before his arrival it was noticeable that there were, once again, quite a few names among the staff that would be familiar as former members of the Royal Ballet companies.it was noticeable that this year's Royal Ballet School main stage performance showed  far more concern with artistry than  seemed to be the case in the last few years and not just in the graduating year. It will be interesting to see whether, and how long, this trend continues and how long the director stays as he has a reputation for having itchy feet.The programme included a very well danced Les Rendezvous in the original Chappell sets and costumes which was performed by students predominantly from the Upper School's second year.So perhaps there is hope for the future.

 

I'm not sure that you can attribute anything that happened on Mason's watch to the fact that she was predominantly known as a MacMillan dancer .She had a formidably strong technique  I think there is some evidence that when it came to recruitment she favoured those with strong technique but then given the way that lyricism can easily degenerate into weak technique and the state of the company in the 1980's i don't find that surprising. I think that Mason was presented with a number of problems, apart from the company's low morale, when she became director..Faced with the choice of reviving pieces that were in danger of being lost or developing the company from within she chose to stabilize the repertory. Perhaps if she had known that she would retire from the directorship at seventy rather than sixty five she might have taken a different approach.

 

As far as the Ashton repertory is concerned you could of course argue that given the centenary Mason was bound to stage his  works in 2004. But if she had wanted to, she could have got away with reviving and programming far fewer of his works than she actually did. If she had programmed the Dream and Month and not much more she would have been criticised by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp but I don't think that many others would have said much.Indeed she would probably have been congratulated by the very people.who complained about her lack of vision and obsession with "heritage works". Instead we got among other things the restoration to the stage of the full length Sylvia a ballet that I never expected to see performed as a three act work.. Mason was heavily involved in its restoration to the stage. .

 

 I think the one thing that her directorship underlines is the long term impact on the company of Michael Kaiser's proposal that the company should be disbanded during the  closure of the opera house .As far as I am aware it was that threat that led to the loss of the male dancers  who went to Japan with Kumakawa who founded his own company there.As Assistant Director I doubt that she was in a position to try to do much to remedy the situation that the loss of these dancers created. Stretton's decision to cast a lot of talented inexperienced dancers in his Don Q resulted in a lot of criticism of their lack of stage presence and their inability to establish character. It was only towards the end of the run that things began to pick up when the dancers who Stretton had been sidelining and clearly hoped to dump or persuade to leave got the chance to show what they could do.Perhaps it was the knowledge that her immediate  need was for experienced male dancers that led her to recruit  Bonnelli and Samudurov. I am not sure that I understand the subsequent apparent failure to identify and develop dancers from within the company the most glaring example of that failure.being Xander Parrish whose height alone might, at one time, have ensured that he was at least given a chance to show what he could do. But as he has expressed his  gratitude for the help that he has received at the Mariinsky perhaps it was  technical weakness that held him back here. It would seem that recruiting from the outside became something of a habit under her directorship and continues to be one as far as principal dancers are concerned. The strange thing about this method of acquiring principal  dancers is that while  each may be highly  skilled their talents rarely seem to meet the company's  obvious needs. Here I wonder whether if Polunin was still with the company we might not be so concerned with what we see as the mistakes made and trends started  or strengthened during Mason's directorship.

 

On paper it would not have taken that much to produce a different outcome as far as developing dancers from within the company is concerned.All that would have been required would have been a change of repertory. Including  works like Facade,Les Rendezvous, Les Patineurs,liberated from Beatrix Potter, regularly as part of the limited number of mixed bills that are now programmed.They are works that still test the abilities of the young inexperienced dancer as well as those of the established ones.These are after all the works that developed the technical skills of the company's dancers in its early years and molded the dancers who created MacMillan's greatest works.So why did not it happen? I suspect that the need to keep the bean counters happy and certain that the company will break even at the end of the year, plus the need to keep the dancers happy goes a long way to  explain what gets programmed.But even if you have  to stage a certain number of full length works each season to balance the books does it always have to be MacMillan;s Romeo and Juliet? I wonder how Lady MacMillan would react if she was told that the company wanted to rest his version of the ballet for four years and replace it with Ashton's but they wanted to stage his Four Seasons? 

 

I wonder whether Mason would have acted differently if she had known that she would remain in post until she was seventy rather than going when she was sixty five? It struck me that during her first period in office she was very much a woman in a hurry with her time taken up in dealing with the immediate problems so that the company she handed over to her successor was in a better sshape than the one she had inherited from Ross Stretton.. No artistic director has a clean sheet as far as their term in office is concerned. de Valois' gravest error was to fail to secure the services of Vera Volkova as a teacher by insisting that she would have to abandon her private classes. Ashton's directorship was successful his weakness was his lack of interest in the school, MacMillan's directorship was not that successful. He would almost certainly have been happier and far more productive if he had not become director. The gradual decline in the company's standards that had been taking place under MacMillan became all too obvious under his successor.

 

 

The current director seems content to let Ashton retain a toehold this season's programme gives us Two Pigeons with different openers . The fact is that any choreographer's works begin to die as soon as they slip from the living repertory  and the collective memory of a company. Part of Webb's success with Ashton ballets at Sarasota is not that they are well coached but they are cast with care and then revived at regular intervals.As a result the dancers become Ashton dancers.As Geraldine Morris pointed out in her book about Ashton's ballets the dancers with whom he worked did not have a uniform training what gave them their uniformity of style was dancing his works in the way that he expected.

 

.At the very point at which you begin to think that all may be lost you have the possibility that things may change. Ratmansky's new Sleeping Beauty is an attempt to return to a dance text that is scraped clean of all the recent accretions of high extensions and musical distortions that give  the dancer the time to add the now obligatory "wow" factor.It turns out that Ashton's works are not that dissimilar from Petipa,

Edited by FLOSS
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Two Pigeons I do not know which BRB performance  of Les Rendezvous you attended last year and I will not ask who the dancer was whose performance you found so unidiomatic in the Markova role. I went to Birmingham for the midweek matinee and because of the duration of the programme I found that I was able to see the evening performance as well and still get home easily so i bought a ticket for it.

 

The management in their infinite wisdom, it probably looked fine on paper after all both roles were created by Markova, or perhaps both dancers had been assured that they would only be in one show during the day, allocated the two Markova roles to a single dancer at the matinee and did the same thing for the evening performance with a different dancer.What made this casting decision so odd was that no one seemed to have noticed that although they were roles created on Markova they are as different from each other as chalk and cheese. The Markova of Les Rendezvous was a dancer who was preparing for her first Giselle and as a result what she presented to Ashton in the rehearsal studio was a dancer performing in the clean style of the French school. The Markova of Facade was a dancer full of  Italian technique which Ashton proceeded to subvert by breaking the rules that usually reveal the harmony  of the body in motion.

 

The performance of one dancer  was perfectly suited to the Markova of Les Rendezvous and  totally unsuited to the Markova role in Facade. The reverse was true at the other performance where the dancer was fine in Facade and unsuited to Les Rendezvous. All in all a really bizarre experience and one that suggests that the company is deaf to nuances of style. Perhaps one of the problems of the Ashton repertory is that there is not a single one size fits all approach to his works.It is true that there is the requirement to bend, the epaulement, the Fred step, the fact that the bouree is very rarely a mere step of transition and so on . The problem is that all his characters move differently and even those individuals who are merely roles rather than characters have their own way of moving.It must make coaching extremely difficult particularly if the dancer is not prepared to adapt their style to the one required. If Ashton himself had so much difficulty in coaching Markarova in Apparitions that he withdrew from the process I hate to think what coaching is like for mere mortals.

Edited by FLOSS

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 Stretton's decision to cast a lot of talented inexperienced dancers in his Don Q resulted in a lot of criticism of their lack of stage presence and their inability to establish character.

 

And yet elsewhere you criticize Kevin O'Hare for NOT giving roles to younger inexperienced dancers!

 

Bit like the blokes propping up the bar at the local discussing what the England manager should be doing.  Theory is a wonderful thing but reality is somewhat different.

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Hi FLOSS, I won't name the dancer I referred to but I have to confess that my view is a bit subjective. I don't like her in anything. When I see anything in which Markova excelled or was choreographed for her I am staggered at how prodigious she must have been. But then I remember how Clement Crisp writes about her. For him to have been so inspired by her over so many decades she was undoubtedly in a class of her own.

 

I think you make consistently valid and perceptive views on both the demands and difficulties of the Ashton rep. Having seen British ballet for 35 years now I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to gave seen some great Ashton dancers, Sibley and Dowell being first amongst them. When I first starting going I could see Park, Collier and very occasionally Seymour. Later dancers I would regard as Ashton dancers include Wildor, Sansom and Yoshida amongst others. How many potential there around now will depend largely on the training and coaching they are given.

 

I must agree with the poster who talked about the subtlety of his work and this is an area which is very vulnerable as acting styles are undoubtedly becoming broader.

 

Mind you, these things may correct themselves in very suprising ways. One male dancer who was very much in the Ashton mould left some pretty great memories as Oberon, Colas , the Young Man in Pigeons and Valses Nobles et Sentimentals etc etc etc. Clearly he respected and loved the works. I find it ironic that Iain Webb has created a protected oasis of Ashton works in America. I wish he would bring his company over here for a visit so that we could all have a good wallow. It would be very interesting to see what we could have but in danger of losing. It would also be very interesting to see how such a visit would be greeted by the current British ballet hierarchy.

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Mab,

 

I hope that I am careful to make clear which are my opinions and those that are the opinions of others. I thought that I had made it clear that it was a criticism made about Stretton's casting of Don Q which I thought had contributed to Mason's decision to recruit from the outside rather than developing dancers from within the company. The comments about Stretton's casting decisions came if I recall on the back of the critics' reviews of the performances of the more experienced dancers in his Don Q and were along the lines of at last we get to see Yoshida and Cope who have the experience to know how to dance this ballet.I am sorry it was a good deal more than twelve years ago and I did not retain the actual reviews.

 

I don't see that the comments about the inadvisability of casting young inexperienced dancers in Don Q, which seems to have been taken out of context to make a point, are incompatible with expressing the view that young dancers should be given a chance to show what they can do. Even if that comment was a bald statement it would not be incompatible with my general view that the company is not programming nearly enough work that would promote the development of the younger dancers without in any way diminishing the quality of the ballets that are performed. In order to succeed as Basilio or Kitri in Don Q a dancer, it seems to me, needs stamina, stage presence if not panache and an obviously brilliant technique these are rarely all present in comparatively inexperienced dancers.I recognise that dancers like the rest of us learn by doing rather than being the balletic equivalent of spear carriers which is what happened to Xander Parrish. That is why I want to see O'Hare make provision for the young talented dancers in the lower ranks of the company so that they get a chance before it is too late. Over the years I have seen far too many young dancers being given their turn as flavour of the month, after several years doing nothing but corps work, and then abandoned,not to recognise that management needs to take a consistent approach to developing its dancers and that without a consistent approach to programming and casting we will find that all the dancers in the senior ranks of the company invariably come from outside it.

 

There are ballets that are generally unsuitable for the inexperienced dancer such as Don Q and Sleeping Beauty and those that give the young dancer the opportunity to gain stage experience and show the director what they can do without placing inordinate pressure on them to be a success first time out.They are ballets like Facade, Les Patineurs,Les Rendezvous and MacMillan's Solitaire which have a number of small roles in which the inexperienced dancer can shine and be tried out for bigger better things.The Two Pigeons was made for young dancers and because it has not been danced by the Covent Garden company for about thirty years it does not carry the same weight of expectation and performance history that many other ballets do. Indeed those who are old enough to remember those performances are likely to be so grovellingly grateful that they won't make a peep about older casts. I shall be interested to know what you and other people think about this.Surprisingly a lot of the ballets that I have listed, and the list is not exhaustive,are by Ashton and in the dim and distant past were what the successes of MacMillan well as Ashton were built on.The new works,it seems to me for the main part require experienced dancers and provide far less opportunity for development as a classical dancer than these older ballets do.

 

While I look forward to seeing Matthew Ball in Romeo and Juliet I am conscious that the role of Romeo is a marathon for the dancer performing it. I trust that he and others will get their chance to show what they can do on a consistent basis.

Edited by FLOSS
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Of course you know that one of the big debates about how Ashton should be danced is whether it is on or off the beat. It makes a hell of a lot of difference to how it looks.

 

It would be lovely if the Sarasota company were to be invited over here but I can't see that happening in real life only in dreams. I think that Mr Webb's secret weapon is his wife who was a great dancer. Along with Beriosova she was one of my top three Giselles. It was always something of a mystery to me that MacMillan didn't seem to want her in the main company. I can't help feeling that the reputation of the company would not have dipped so much as it did in the 1980's if he had taken her into the company when Jeffries joined it.

Edited by FLOSS
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FLOSS, thank you for your very informative posts, much appreciated. I am learning so much!  

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At least David Bintley has not jumped on the current bandwagon and gone for performances if Marguerite and Armand. We don't have the dancers to do that work full justice. Yet.

I think that M&A is very much second tier (at best) Ashton, so I don't blame Bintley for passing it over.  

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It only appears to be second tier because it was created as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and they turned it into a masterpiece every time they danced it.  Ashton never intended it to be danced by other casts and indeed all those second and third rate casts that have danced it since have simply proved Ashton right.

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While fully endorsing the point about second and third rate casts being lamentable I still feel that second tier Ashton is still head and shoulders above so many other choreographers. Not all, obviously, but lots of others.

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M and A was a vehicle for the dancers on whom it was created. I don't think that it is necessarily a question of it being second rate Ashton if it often looks odd and unashtonian and if performances of the same ballet look so wildly different.It has everything to do with dancers performing what was set in the correct style and speed rather than adapting it to their own style and adding high extensions and so on

 

Having said that I would have been quite happy if it had not been exhumed.All the performances that I have seen of it have fallen short of the original. Ashton was right about this work and Beatrix Potter. M. and A. should not have been revived and Beatrix Potter should never have been allowed to make the transition from screen to stage.

 

But the fact that M and A seems to be spreading across the world like a rash does sugest that there is a demand for suitable vehicles by dancers of a certain age and that they are waiting for choreographers to come up with the goods.Perhaps Mr Scarlett should think about devising such a ballet or a series of them to meet the demand.Then it might prove possible to restore M and A to its resting place. Of course it could just turn out to be the case that whatever its flaws M and A still "goes" in a way that more recent creations do not.

Edited by FLOSS
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FLOSS, in one of your earlier posts I think you were unjust to Michael Kaiser.  The proposal to disband the ROH orchestra and chorus and put the Royal Ballet dancers onto 36 week contracts came from Lord Southgate (then chairman of the ROH) and Pelham Allen who was acting as chief executive.  As I recall, It was made on purely financial grounds.  Michael Kaiser didn't appear on the scene until some time after that idea had been kicked into the long grass, arriving shortly before the opening of the refurbished Opera House.

However, it was Kaiser who said to Dowell when Kumakawa et. al. handed in their notices; "go out and hire the five best male dancers in the world".

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Never Mind the Moon by Jeremy Isaacs is an invaluable source of information about the events leading up to the closure.  It's a good read too

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I do wonder how much money Anthony Russell Roberts is making out of M and A. Seems to be a case of never mind the quality.........

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Not from a Royal Company but a small segment of an early ABT performance of Ashton's Les Patineurs can be found in this trailer for a new DVD release of early ABT television relays here that may be of connected interest: 

 

Edited by Bruce Wall
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For those whose French is up to it, this review of 2 different performances of Sylvia at the Mariinsky recently makes fascinating reading.  The images are great too.  The writer is Russian I think and it is interesting to note the depth of knowledge of the subject not just of ballet but of Sylvia in general and of Ashton's version  in particular.

 

http://www.forum-dansomanie.net/pagesdanso/critiques/cr0307_sylvia_mariinsky_20_23_10_2015.html

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