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Do we need an Ashton Society?


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I just came by chance across his Nursery Suite, created for the Queen's 60th.

 

I wouldn't claim it as a masterpiece, but even this very late pièce d'occasion, made for RBS students, strikes me as having so much more invention, skill and sheer quality than almost anything commissioned in recent years by the RB that it's left me wondering whether Ashton's real handicap is his charm. (I don't think charm is fashionable, and it often gets mistaken for superficiality.)

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I think you've hit the nail on the head there Lizbie!

 

The first time I saw Fille I loved it, the second time I loved it, the third time I decided I was Fille'd out.  Fortunately for me, I have always done BRB subscription tickets so I had no choice but to see it.  I think it was about my 6th viewing that I realised I had been a total idiot and it was a MASTERPIECE!!!!!  Now, I can't get enough of Fille (or indeed most of the other Ashton works I have been very privileged to see).

 

Perhaps we should start small and set up an Ashton Appreciation Society as a group of individuals.  Then perhaps a great oak will grow from our acorn.  What does anyone think?

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Posted (edited)
On 07/05/2021 at 16:51, Two Pigeons said:

At the RB Ashton will always come second to Macmillan's works.  Every young aspiring soloist wants to dance Juliet and Manon but Lise seems to be less sought after.  Please the dance gods Cinderella is not lost forever.  Ondine and Sylvia have their bursts but a number of one acts seem to be disappearing in the balletic quicksand of time.

 

Please don't let the Ashton heritage go the same way.  There is still time to act and can Ashton Society sounds a very sensible start.

 

Could one of the issues be that performing Ashton requires a level of pin sharp technical accuracy, particularly with regard to footwork, that is not quite so necessary for Juliet and Manon?  I have heard it said that the role of Juliet is not technically that difficult.  

Plus R & J, Manon and Mayerling have such terrific plots, allowing the dancers to display their dramatic skills.  A girl pouting at her lover to catch his attention in Two Pigeons, or sneaking off behind her mother's back to enjoy a romantic tryst in Fille, requires a much more subtle approach.  It doesn't capture the imagination in the same way from a performing point of view as Manon dying in the swamps, I would imagine.  For some reason, someone who excels in comedy is never given the same credit for their acting skills as a tragedian.  When was the last time someone won Best Actor for a comedy role in the Oscars, I wonder?  

Edited by Fonty
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2 hours ago, Fonty said:

 

When was the last time someone won Best Actor for a comedy role in the Oscars, I wonder?  

 

Probably Jean Dujardin (The Artist) back in 2011 (2010?)

 

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2 hours ago, zxDaveM said:

 

Probably Jean Dujardin (The Artist) back in 2011 (2010?)

 

Dying is easy, it's comedy that's hard!  So, allegedly said the great actor Edmund Gwenn as he was dying.

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Posted (edited)
17 hours ago, Lizbie1 said:

I just came by chance across his Nursery Suite, created for the Queen's 60th.

 

I wouldn't claim it as a masterpiece, but even this very late pièce d'occasion, made for RBS students, strikes me as having so much more invention, skill and sheer quality than almost anything commissioned in recent years by the RB that it's left me wondering whether Ashton's real handicap is his charm. (I don't think charm is fashionable, and it often gets mistaken for superficiality.)

 

I was lucky enough to be at the Opera House for that gala.  Given for the Queen's 60th Birthday with her, her mother and her sister all present I cannot tell you how unbelievably apt it all was.

The gala was televised live on ITV - those were the days! - and my mother, a direct contemporary of Princess Margaret, was in floods of tears as memories of her childhood came back to her.

 

What a gala that was.  Dowell and Kirkland (in her prime) dancing Romeo and Juliet, Dowell and Collier in Birthday Offering, Marion Tait in Solitaire.  As I remember it finished with the finale of Daphnis and Chloe with Jenny Penney and Mark Silver.

 

And then there was the Opera.  Domingo in Tosca, Carreras in Granada, Jessye Norman singing about Marble Halls and then Tremonisha by Scott Jopling.

 

One of my greatest memories of my nights at the theatre.  Many thanks for the reminder Lizbie.

 

P.s.  I agree absolutely with your comments about Ashton.

Edited by Two Pigeons
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Posted (edited)

As a first step

On 26/05/2021 at 08:07, Jan McNulty said:

Perhaps we should start small and set up an Ashton Appreciation Society as a group of individuals.  Then perhaps a great oak will grow from our acorn.  What does anyone think?

 

In the spirit of Jan's acorn, is there any possibility of starting a new forum category for Ashton? You could "join the society" by following posts or sub-forums. If his ballets are under-performed, he won't feature in the Recent Performances or Listings sections, and his name will crop up less and less. 

 

Edited by Rina
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On 25/05/2021 at 22:07, Lizbie1 said:

I just came by chance across his Nursery Suite, created for the Queen's 60th.

 

I wouldn't claim it as a masterpiece, but even this very late pièce d'occasion, made for RBS students, strikes me as having so much more invention, skill and sheer quality than almost anything commissioned in recent years by the RB that it's left me wondering whether Ashton's real handicap is his charm. (I don't think charm is fashionable, and it often gets mistaken for superficiality.)

 

It was repeated for whatever Royal Gala it was that was on in the mid-2000s - featuring Olivia Cowley, IIRC, and I can't remember who the other dancer was.  Presumably it was some anniversary of the Queen's, since Homage to the Queen was revisited.

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While Kevin has expanded the number of Ashton ballets he will occasionally give stage time to with the unexpected revival of Enigma Variations in 2019 I can't help feeling that given his apparent reluctance to establish any sort of systematic approach to reviving the Ashton repertory it won't be long before the bulk of the choreographer's output including  some of his most popular ballets will require rediscovery. Perhaps someone can explain why with the exception of Les Patineurs he does not seem overly keen to revive any of Ashton's prewar works on the main stage? What on earth does he have against Facade and why having dangled the prospect of reviving Apparitions by staging a substantial chunk of it at the Fonteyn Gala hasn't he at least announced that he will programme the whole thing at some point in the not too distant future? 

 

I don't want anyone to think that I am criticising the operation of the Ashton Foundation. As a registered charity it can only act to further its declared charitable objectives and it has no control and sadly little influence over the repertory which the RB's director decides to programme. The best it could ever hope to do would be to shame a director into reviving specific long neglected works. But as the Foundation seems to be closely connected with the RB, shaming is not really on the cards. The Foundation's main functions appear to be recording neglected works; training approved Ashton repetiteurs and fostering an interest in ballet in general rather encouraging an interest in Ashton's output. In addition it owns Daphnis and Chloe, is reported to be  in the process of acquiring Monotones I and II and Enigma Variations and looks after staging Les Patineura and Les Rendezvous  for the RBS which receives the income from staging those two ballets. It has looked at the impact which recent changes in training and the shift to a more athletic aesthetic has had on the repertory as in 2013 it held a Symposium at which there was lengthy discussion but no decision, as far as I can see, on whether there was a need to devise special Ashton classes to prepare dancers to perform his choreography. Given that the Foundation has no obligation to promote Ashton's works and Ashton  does not have an active advocate in the way the MacMillan does an Ashton Society could be a useful way of giving him a higher profile than he currently enjoys and perhaps a means in some way of acting as an advocate for his ballets. Interestingly in his review of the Balanchine , Robbins mixed bill Gerald Dowler commented on the dour nature of the opening programme "21st Century Choreographers " and questioned management's  neglect of works by de Valois, Ashton and MacMillan. 

 

It is clear from what it says about its aims and objectives on its website that the Ashton Foundation was never intended to be the sole answer to the question of how to keep the Ashton repertory alive. It is better than nothing but there seems little point to it if its very existence and the work it does cannot persuade Ashton's home company to allocate at least a guaranteed amount of stage time to his works every season and devise a timetable which ensures that the major works have a regular and guaranteed place in the company's active repertory. Without wishing to sound despondent or unduly worried I think this is something of a pressing need as I don't think that we can assume that BRB will continue to be a safe and secure home for elements of the Ashton repertory. It is not so much the departures from the company that prompt me to say this but the places where some of the joiners were trained which suggest that a less understated performance style may be coming to BRB. Of course as director Acosta is perfectly entitled to develop the company so that its dancers and its repertory reflect his own tastes and aesthetic values.  He was hired to make changes after all. But while I am sure that Romeo and Juliet is safe enough I am not so sure that works by the Founder Choreographer or by the Founder herself are as secure as they once were.

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Very interesting, Floss and as usual you make some very pertinent points with which I agree. It's interesting the Ashton Foundation looks after Les Rendezvous on behalf of the RBS which receives an income when it's staged, and yet Kevin shows no sign of staging it for them to receive the income.  Indeed ENB are the ones staging it for their school which is slightly bizarre.  I do hope they stream it. I did request it.

 

Like you say, it's not just Ashtons work but De Valois, Massine, and much of the Ballet Russes choreography as well that is being neglected. I too thought Facade would be a great inclusion in the divertissments. Interesting that Voices of Spring is being shown last. Kevin obviously recognises it's a great crowd pleaser and realises the importance of finishing the divertissments on a high. 

 

Much as I'd love an Ashton Society who would fund and organise it? What could it achieve that the Foundation doesnt given the illustrious names on the Board? How could it promote Ashtons works if the RB Director isn't willing to give him stage time? Perhaps more of us need to contact Kevin to make our feelings felt. I've emailed him a couple of times expressing my concern about the lack of Ashton rep, especially rare items, and the worry much of it will disappear if it isn't staged while people like Christopher Carr and Anthony Dowell are around to remember it. 

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During his time as director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O'Hare has revived a couple of Ashton ballets rarely performed by the RB (unfortunately, too many Ashton ballets fall into the 'rarely performed' category,) but  it looks like the variety of Ashton ballets under his leadership so far has decreased. There was the tempting prospect of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales at the Linbury, but that disappeared with the event of Covid. Who knows if it will resurface and who knows, indeed, what else was planned? 

 

Ondine, Cinderella, Wedding Bouquet, Daphnis and Chloe, Les Rendezvous, Birthday Offering: all of these were last danced during Monica Mason's tenure. Facade and Illuminations made brief appearances midway through Anthony Dowell's directorship, not since.

 

There's pressure on repertoire space, that's understandable. That it's got to the point where just a handful of Ashton's works are only occasionally revived makes many of us evidently extremely disappointed. Would 'cultural vandalism' be too strong a phrase for the disappearance of his ballets from the active rep? His works are still relevant.

 

I don't expect things are going to change significantly to please those of us who want to see more Ashton ballets per season, whoever's in charge, (not to mention the other works we miss from the Diaghilev rep, De Valois, Tudor and MacMillan one-acters.) On the plus side, many recent revivals of Ashton's ballets have often been satisfying in terms of being well danced or cast, if not to Sibley/Dowell/Fonteyn et al perfection, then the next best thing.

 

Dowell's less than total enthusiasm for programming Ashton's work seemed a self-conscious shunning of his youth, not wanting to be seen as old-fashioned. Mason had a natural allegiance to the MacMillan repertoire. Was O'Hare's leadershIp bid sealed in part through the support of MacGregor and Wheeldon? He is certainly managing a very delicate balancing act, but at least he knows and understands the history of the company, and I hold out hope that he  may yet offer us the odd revival of something very unusual such as Foyer de Danse, Apparitions, Dante Sonata,  La Chatte, Walk to the Paradise Garden or Lament of the Waves.

Edited by Darlex
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I hope you’re right, Darlex.  Ashton contributed too much to the history and development of English ballet for the majority of his works to be consigned to the dustbin of our cultural history.  

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In a way I think this thread links in with discussions on several other recent threads on this forum on what classical ballet actually is. Ashton is indisputably a great classical ballet choreographer (one of very few, really). Many other choreographers use classically trained dancers to make dance or movement, usually to music. That's doesn't make it ballet. The Royal Ballet should surely be showcasing the range of Ashton's works as its own unique and supreme treasure of classical ballet, of which it is supposed to be a world leading company. If today's audiences don't see much of his output, how can they really judge or understand the Royal Ballet, or British ballet, or 20th-century ballet, or ballet as a living art form?  

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One thing an Ashton Society could lobby for is greater transparency from the RB. I am not happy with it but I can understand the company's shift towards contemporary styles over the last 20 years. But it is not a zero-sum game: there is no reason why Ashton works should pay the price for new contemporary ones. In the absence of explanation for under-performance of Ashton, we can only guess or draw inferences or ask questions, which is very frustrating. It is evident that the company decided a long time ago  to distance itself from its Ashton repertory. For me the use of "heritage works" as against "contemporary" is a symptom of splitting - a repertory consists both of old and new, the only relevant factor is whether a work is being performed or not. The same applies to "silo" programming where a triple bill consists only of Ashton works.

In my old field of archetypal psychology, we studied an archetype called "senex and puer" - literally old man and boy - which combined patterns in the psyche (or imagination if you prefer) such as structure, tradition and melancholy (senex) on the one hand and creativity, spirit and unrelatedness (puer) on the other. [I am grossly simplifying, sorry]. But the essence is that they interfuse each other, so that senex depth sometimes casts a dappled shade over puer brilliance and vice versa. If they split apart, they tend to become extreme examples of themselves, showing in particular their negative aspects, and fight each other, causing feelings of conflict and self-destructive behaviour in a person. I think we are seeing this in society at large. It also seems to articulate the situation with the RB. It is hard to imagine a triple bill containing both Ashton and McGregor. It is as if the RB couldn't hold such opposites together and they split the traditional idea of repertory. It feels like a conflict which one side had to win. As the loser, the Ashton rep still remains but in a more isolated, cut-down form.

It is tragic that this has happened in ballet of all art forms, given its fragility and dependence on continuance of performance. In music say, the lesser or minor works of a great composer are still performed - treasured even as bearing the hand of a master. Even juvenilia are carefully preserved. Think of Elgar's work before he emerged onto the international stage aged over 40 with Enigma Variations. He wrote many works before that which the Elgar Society has successfully promoted. In my view everything by Ashton which can still be mounted should be. We also desperately need them to be available on DVD, and streamed where possible. 

The Foundation has gathered around it a great body of Ashton people. It has produced some excellent masterclasses and made them freely available on Youtube. Again though, it is not a transparent organisation. We don't know what's happening or what's being planned. It doesn't feel that enough is being done but we don't really know. The factor which a Society or Friends of the Foundation or Ashton Appreciation group could add is the audience perspective. For example, audiences appreciate humour, especially if a choreographer is skilled enough to let it shine through the steps. The first ballet I ever saw live (in my mid-thirties) was Capriol Suite and it drew me in to its friendly, humorous world. Ashton is so good because somehow he combines seriousness and humour, in Capriol say letting the fun of the social dances be slightly undercut by the melancholy beauty of the pavane and courtly dance. 

If the RB had included just one rarely performed Ashton piece every year for the last ten years, the situation would have been greatly improved, without any challenge in terms of resources or to the RB's stress on contemporary work. I can't see any reason not to do that now.

Seeing the streamed performance of the pas de quatre from Ashton's production of Swan Lake by the San Francisco Ballet School (still available until 24 June) gave me a lift. So much great dancing in a such a short piece. Maybe the RB feel they have to relativise Ashton (and misrepresent his range by performing fewer of his works) because he is just too good to have around. The students perform it well and seem to be enjoying themselves.

Perhaps this forum could become involved as the place to start the lobbying in earnest - with a letter to the RB board on the lines of the single seat group letter sent recently. 

 

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As a younger and new ballet goer I'd love to see more Ashton. Symphonic Variations is one of my absolute favourites ballets, but even just reading these posts there's a few that I haven't heard of. I've looked through programs from the late 30s to mid 50s and found Ashton works I had no idea existed as well. It seems such a shame that these works are being, perhaps not truly forgotten, but not programmed as much. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ashton was the founding choreographer. It shouldn't come down to them to do anniversary programmes or All-Ashton bills every now and then, I think these works should be programmed regularly so the audience can see them and the dancers can dance them. While I'm all for new works, forgetting your heritage is, as a history student, the exact sort of thing I wish companies wouldn't do. 

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I have re-read this thread a number of times and I feel that pretty much every posting, one way or another, alludes to the Ashton being undervalued to the extent that its long term future is very precarious.  From what I have seen and read the future health of the Ashton style is even more precarious.  Marguerite and Armand will always find ballerinas longing to dance it but not as Ashton intended.  It is far more likely to be some hybrid of the general Russian/European style, lacking most or all of the Ashton subtleties.

 

There is one person who really tried to preserve both Ashton's works and his style and that was David Bintley at BRB.  I was very impressed with his reconstruction of Dante Sonata, which I had never seen before, and his determination to involve as many members of the original cast as were available at the time.  Here was someone who had real affection and total respect for Ashton and his style, ably assisted by Marion Tait and others.

 

That link has been broken but I am very grateful that I was able to watch so much of it all.  As Floss says, Carlos Acosta has been hired to offer a different direction for the company.  Admirable though that is, especially in the current commercial climate, I can only regret the passing of the old guard.

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6 minutes ago, MaddieRose said:

As a younger and new ballet goer I'd love to see more Ashton. Symphonic Variations is one of my absolute favourites ballets, but even just reading these posts there's a few that I haven't heard of. I've looked through programs from the late 30s to mid 50s and found Ashton works I had no idea existed as well. It seems such a shame that these works are being, perhaps not truly forgotten, but not programmed as much. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ashton was the founding choreographer. It shouldn't come down to them to do anniversary programmes or All-Ashton bills every now and then, I think these works should be programmed regularly so the audience can see them and the dancers can dance them. While I'm all for new works, forgetting your heritage is, as a history student, the exact sort of thing I wish companies wouldn't do. 

Hear, hear!

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1 hour ago, Rina said:

For me the use of "heritage works" as against "contemporary" is a symptom of splitting - a repertory consists both of old and new, the only relevant factor is whether a work is being performed or not. The same applies to "silo" programming where a triple bill consists only of Ashton works.

 

And then, of course, the problem tends to be that, by putting several Ashton works on together, you get a situation where the most appropriate dancers may only be cast in one piece out of three, which may lead to the really good "Ashton" dancers not necessarily being able to appear in works which they might be really suited for (and possibly other, less-suited, dancers being cast in them instead).  As a student, Vadim Muntagirov was scheduled to dance Oberon in The Dream for his graduation performance - although in fact he was injured and had to be replaced.  When we had the 2016 Ashton bill announced, I'd been thinking that we might possibly get a chance to see his Oberon, but he was cast in Symphonic Variations instead.  Now, that is quite likely to have been the best decision, given how well he danced it, and performing a role as a student can be very different from dancing it as a mature professional, but I was aware that he was only able to be cast in the one ballet and that we wouldn't get to see him as Oberon.  I suspect the same problem might occur with someone like Francesca Hayward, say, being cast in only one ballet by a choreographer who appears to suit her.  That's why, when I see all-Ashton bills, my heart tends to sink a little despite my joy at the prospect (- and the likelihood that I'll book most, if not all, of the performances).  His work needs to be mixed in with that of other choreographers, so that newer balletgoers, like MaddieRose, get a chance to realise what they may be missing, in case the prospect of a whole bill by one choreographer is a step too far for them.

 

Quote

Seeing the streamed performance of the pas de quatre from Ashton's production of Swan Lake by the San Francisco Ballet School (still available until 24 June) gave me a lift. So much great dancing in a such a short piece. Maybe the RB feel they have to relativise Ashton (and misrepresent his range by performing fewer of his works) because he is just too good to have around. The students perform it well and seem to be enjoying themselves.

 

Did the Makarova/London Festival Ballet Swan Lake ever actually make in onto DVD?  I have a feeling it did, eventually.  The pas de quatre can be seen in that recording.

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The 25th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s death was marked by a National Celebration of his works by six British companies. 

 

From the ROH website at the time: 

"Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, The Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Yorke Dance Project come together to celebrate the profound influence of Kenneth MacMillan marking the 25th anniversary of his death"

 

Since then, there could have been similar opportunities to celebrate the works of Frederick Ashton.  His Centenary was, of course, celebrated in the 2004/5 season but the anniversaries of his death in 1988 have not been marked in any way.  As far as I know, the  20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries have all passed without any kind of special celebration. 

Edited by Bluebird
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I do feel that the RB needs to be made more aware of MaddieRose's perspective. - and how it is potentially disinheriting younger audiences by its attitudes to programming of Ashton. In light of alison's comment, I still have the programme for my first ever evening at the RB: 30 June 1986 a triple bill with Les Patineurs and The Dream to begin and end and Jiri Kylian's Return to the Strange Land in the middle. I was completely bowled over and converted to ballet on the spot, especially the Nocturne pdd. But I remember liking the Kylian too, quite mysterious and transformative. His different style didn't jar because it didn't seek to impose itself on the other works. Isn't a triple bill a chance for different works to see each other, as well as for the audience to contrast and compare?

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2 hours ago, Rina said:

It is hard to imagine a triple bill containing both Ashton and McGregor.

 

I don't know why this is.  I recall three in recent memory.  In 2011, we had Limen, M&A and Requiem, in 2014, we had Rhapsody, Two Tractors (Tetractys) and Gloria and in 2018 we had Obsidian Tear, M&A and Elite Syncopations. 

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I’d love to hear from the Webbs as to why, after so many seasons championing Ashton at Sarasota Ballet, they’ve programmed only one smallish work by the choreographer (Valses Nobles) into their entire upcoming season. Any other company, I’d attribute it to post-COVID recovery and a need to refill the coffers with evening-long family blockbusters but that’s not the case here. 

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Surely mixed bills should, as was historically the case, include a broad range of works from traditional to contemporary and everything inbetween. As well as satisfying the advocates of one or other genre, rarely performed "heritage" pieces and newly choreographed works can both be introduced to partisan audiences who may find that they really enjoy works that they would not otherwise have chosen to see, increasing the potential audience base for both. Lately there seems to have been a move away from broad scheduling of this type. I am far from convinced that this is helpful.

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By my reckoning we need DVDs of Month in the Country, Les Rendezvous, Facade and, maybe updates of Les Patineurs and/or Scenes de Ballet.  Then there are the really rare gems like A Wedding Bouquet, the Walk to the Paradise Garden etc, etc, etc......

 

It would be great if there was the clear will to make recordings of these works available to balletomanes every where.

 

Oh yes, and an authentic recording of Cinderella.  I think Francesca Hayward could be very busy.  Surely she will get a crack at Ondine, preferably with William Bracewell.

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1 minute ago, Two Pigeons said:

 

Oh yes, and an authentic recording of Cinderella.  I think Francesca Hayward could be very busy.  Surely she will get a crack at Ondine, preferably with William Bracewell.

 

I was disappointed to see that they they have not been paired together in any of the forthcoming works as both share an unforced, naturalistic style that is mutually complementary and delightful to watch. The Hayward/Campbell partnership seems to have been revived, however.

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2 minutes ago, Scheherezade said:

Surely mixed bills should, as was historically the case, include a broad range of works from traditional to contemporary and everything inbetween. As well as satisfying the advocates of one or other genre, rarely performed "heritage" pieces and newly choreographed works can both be introduced to partisan audiences who may find that they really enjoy works that they would not otherwise have chosen to see, increasing the potential audience base for both. Lately there seems to have been a move away from broad scheduling of this type. I am far from convinced that this is helpful.

 

You may be right, but I'm grateful for the "heritage" mixed bills - it's maddening to go to the expense of travelling up to London to see only one part of a bill.

 

I know I'm a bore on the subject, but very few recent RB commissions are for me worth the journey - and there's no jeopardy (FOMO?) in not booking for a new commission, as we know it nearly always gets put on again, good or bad.

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Thinking about the pressure to commission new works: I came to ballet via opera, so I find slightly alien the assumption that we must forever be commissioning something new. With the Royal Opera, there is maybe one Main Stage new opera per year, and in many years not even that.

 

Opera singers often speak of wanting to bring certain roles into their repertoire, but few seem very interested in having new works composed for them - they're more likely to be enthusiastic about reviving something which has fallen out of the repertoire (if only more dancers felt this way!). I'd be interested to know why their attitude seems to differ from dancers' in this respect.

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The discussion about mixed bills is interesting. It seems to me that the programming of an all Ashton triple bill is a direct and positive response to the call for more Ashton ballets. I do often think that Kevin O'Hare can't win when it comes to programming decisions! 

 

Having said that, it sounds like there are lots of thoughts in this thread on what's really needed to keep Ashton's work alive. So perhaps it would be good to have a vehicle for communicating those suggestions. 

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