Celebration: Sir Frederick Ashton
By Lori Ortiz
We are in the midst of a world-wide Balanchine centennial, but another choreographer, born in the same year of 1904, is also being celebrated for his incredible contribution to dance. The Guggenheim Museum hosted a100th birthday celebration for Sir Frederick Ashton as part of their works & process series. PBS broadcast his ballet "The Dream" ( after Shakespeare’s comedy) set to the music of Tchaikovsky. Puck, danced with elfish Ballon by Herman Cornejo, struck the serious audience with giddy admiration. The most ferocious party animal is tranquil under the spell of this picturesque reverie.
Ashton defined the British classical style. He died in 1988 but left over thirty works in the repertory of the Royal Ballet. He is perhaps best known abroad for his version of "Cinderella," the comic "La Fille Mal GardÃ¯Â¿Â½e," and the film ballet "Tales of Hoffman." His mission was to build on Petipa’s legacy; his work paid homage to Pavlova, whom he was taken to watch when he was a boy growing up in Ecuador.
On stage at the Guggenheim’s Peter P. Lewis Theater were Former Royal Ballerina Georgina Parkinson and John Meehan, current director of the American Ballet Theater Studio Company. Their discussion of Ashton’s method and manner augmented the bright performances of American Ballet Theater and Studio dancers in excerpts of the ballets.
Among his early performances is the 1946 "Symphonic Variations" to Cesar Franck’s "Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra." This pas de six demonstrates the fluid lines and symmetry that are the framework of Ashton’s choreography.
An excerpt from "The Dream" (1964) featured ABT dancers Stella Abrera and Marian Butler’s impetuous portrayal of the confused sufferers of the spell cast by the puckish Craig Salstein. In "The Dream" Ashton is the romantic and great wit.
In his choreography, he extracted from dancers the "intent and perfume" of the movement. Critic Arnold Haskell wrote in 1932 of Ashton’s gift for "assimilating atmosphere that can turn ballet from an entertainment into an art with something significant to say." Though his dances are technically challenging, the movements are always fluid and naturalistic. Character is built into the dancer’s performance and virtuosity for its own sake is played down. For him, the process of making a dance was collaborative and linear; the next step always proceeded from the last. He was a "quiet man and expressed himself through movement, said Parkinson on whom he created dances like the 1965 "Monotones." The challenge for dancers is how to get from A to B. "Everything has to be done with the greatest intent, otherwise it’s empty."
Parkinson coached ABT Studio dancers in "Monotones II." Three dancers in chartreuse leotards with space-age do-rags take a few steps, gazing out to the right and then to the left. "You have to set up an atmosphere. You have to have something in mind to make it come to life," she explained. Ashton visualized this as a desert with setting sun and people looking into the distance. He created an otherworldly weightlessness in dance. Though music was always the origin of his invention, space travel was on his mind in 1966.
"Monotones I" (1965) to the familiar "Gymnopedie," was performed in its entirety at the Guggenheim by ABT Studio dancers. In an impressive performance Melanie Hamrick turned in arabesque, supported alternately by Mathew Golding and Roman Zuhrbin. Bejeweled and clad in white, all three take measured but fluid steps. They link arms in a lacy pattern like filigree or cutout paper dolls moving in unison. While Balanchine invented ways to move faster and higher, Ashton perfected "plastique".
The celebration continues in July. The now Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet kicks off this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival with the Monotones on July 6. Japan’s K Ballet dances "Rhapsody," and The Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Ashton’s "Enigma Variations." The Festival stages classics like "The Two Pigeons," "A Wedding Bouquet," and "Scenes de Ballet" to Stravinsky. July 15-17, the Royal Ballet closes the celebration with "Cinderella."