It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Sir Frederick Ashton and it isn’t for a lack of material—there’s certainly some great stuff on YouTube worth discussing all night. We’ll just say that it’s essential that I write about Ashton ballets to the best of my ability, when I have time to do a bit of research and really discuss them in a way that does them justice. Please accept that as a legitimate excuse…it kind of is (even if the truth is, I’m still trying to figure out how to have a job, and stay awake while trying to write).
At any rate, it’s interesting to note that a number of Ashton’s most successful story ballets were his interpretations of ballet music previously used in productions that have long been lost, and necessary (okay, boastful) to note that his versions are arguably the most popular today. Among them are the likes of Cinderella, Sylvia, and La Fille mal gardée, but one of the things often overlooked in regards to his legacy is how successful he made the one act story ballet. It’s not that he invented the idea (certainly, a number of one act ballets by various choreographers preceded his time), but it’s many of his that remain fixtures in repertory programming around the world. There is one other choreographer whose influence is as vast—Michel Fokine, his chronological predecessor whose work with the Ballet Russes epitomizes the one act ballet, and there’s a connection between them—Daphnis et Chloé or Daphnis and Chloë, depending on which choreographer you’re discussing. That’s confusing…let me rephrase: Fokine and Ashton have Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, Daphnis et Chloé in common because they both created ballets to it.
The score was commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes, and after Ravel worked on it for three years (butting heads with other creative minds in the process) the company premiered Daphnis et Chloé in 1912 in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles, sets and costumes by Léon Bakst. Fokine adapted the libretto from a novel of the same name, written by Greek author Longus in the second century AD. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the last revival of Fokine’s ballet was in 1924, by Diaghilev in Monte Carlo. Much of the repertory of the Ballet Russes has been lost anyway so it’s generally safe to assume the same fate befell Daphnis et Chloé, and any “revival” would be wild guesses based on a few scribbled score notes and lithographs—if that (seems I still have the DCA conference on my mind). I know assumptions are reckless, but I’m supposed to be writing about Ashton’s ballet anyway, so this concludes the Fokine section of today’s history lesson.
Ashton’s decision to revive Daphnis et Chloé and pay homage to the Ballet Russes was in fact inspired by a vacation to Greece. While retaining plot elements from Longus’s novel, Ashton put his own twist on it by directly placing the ballet in the “modern” Greece he saw and experienced himself, which at the time was in the 1950’s. Daphnis and Chloë premiered in 1951 with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with Michael Somes and Dame Margot Fonteyn as the lead characters. The edited plot is fairly simple, with Daphnis and Chloë being two young people in love, on one of Greek’s idyllic isles (Lesbos, according to the novel, and Daphnis and Chloë are supposed to be of noble birthright, but orphaned and adopted by shepherds). A young man by the name of Dorkon (don’t giggle, that’s actually his name) also competes for Chloë’s affections, and it wouldn’t be a ballet if Daphnis wasn’t seduced by another woman, in this case a seductress by the name of Lykanion. Cue the pirates, who kidnap Chloë (although from what I observed, a scorned Dorkon lets them take her), and after being nearly raped, the god Pan saves her and returns her to Daphnis, and all is well. This may not seem like the most romantic scenario, but I find it fascinating that Ashton chose to present a story without a clear sense of heroism. I’d like to think that there was a conscious effort to do more with ballet than typical love stories.
Some visuals of the original cast, including video footage of Fonteyn as Chloë, in her solo celebrating her reunion with Daphnis:
The original premiered with sets and costumes by John Craxton, which were met with mixed reviews and apparently, enough to warrant major changes. Sometimes I think the search for a classical masterpiece has critics requiring that it be timeless or an intentional period piece, resulting in an immediate dismissal of anything that reflects a modernity doomed to be dated. I find that peculiar considering in order to become classics, contemporary work has to go through that several transitions before reaching that upper echelon and I wonder if choreographers today are afraid of dissolving legacies, or are perhaps a little impatient, which is why there’s a dearth of “exploring new movement” and performing the usual assortment of classical war horses. Currently, we have a lot of the past and a lot of the future, which is great…but where are the ballets that reflect our present? For that reason, I find it thrilling that Ashton gave us these images of Greece as he saw it in person, and enjoy the Craxton designs as well (he too spent a holiday in Greece). However, when Daphnis and Chloë was revived under Anthony Dowell’s directorship in 1994, he chose to commission new sets and costumes by Martyn Bainbridge. These were more of the stereotypical Greco-Roman imagery. There isn’t too much information on the Bainbridge designs, though noted Ashton archivist David Vaughan described them in an article he wrote for DanceView after the 1994 revival:
The basic design for the scenery features an arched opening which frames, in the three scenes, a sun-baked landscape, a night sky, and the sea. The arch is also filled from top to bottom with horizontal strings or wires that give a shimmering effect as of a heat haze or the reflection of the sea…When I add that the wall of the archway is covered with Greek lettering, including the names of the creators of the ballet rendered in the Greek alphabet, it will become clear that this is a design with at least one idea too many.
Luckily, I’m an obsessive nerd and managed to find a couple of photos from the 1994 performances by the Royal Ballet; this photo gives you some idea.
There must have been enough negative reactions though, because in 2004 for the Ashton centenary celebration, the original costumes and sets were for the most part, restored. One of the performances was recorded and shown on television, with Federico Bonelli as Daphnis, Alina Cojocaru as Chloë, Thiago Soares as Dorkon, Marianela Nuñez as Lykanion, Jose Martin as the pirate Bryaxis, and Gary Avis as Pan. I think the casting was exceptional; who better than Bobo and Coco to portray the innocent young couple? Also, having seen Nuñez’s Gamzatti in the DVD of La Bayadère, her skills of temptation are top notch, and perfectly suited for the sultry (and rather horny) Lykanion. The most interesting thing about the character of Lykanion is that the first actual pas de deux is between her and Daphnis, not the two main characters, and it’s quite a raunchy one. Obviously, it’s not gratuitous but nonetheless interesting that Lykanion is the one to exploit Daphnis and actualize sexuality for him. She may be a dirty bird, but I think her presence adds a sense of realism to the ballet, certainly making Daphnis appear as an unmistakably virginal young man, but with a certain innocence that is more relatable than the typical principal male role in a ballet, where a man screws up and the woman has to forgive him (and usually she pays with her life, though sometimes they both die).
Soares is a funny Dorkon, with his comical, brazen displays of machismo in a dance off with Daphnis, though I will say that Dorkon’s costume is most unfortunate, with those heinous periwinkle pants, and while I have a special affinity for the hours of entertainment provided by fake mustaches (seriously, try wearing one in between your eyebrows), the combination of Dorkon’s wig and mustache is not so great. Still, Soares gives the role a lot of pizzazz.
As I mentioned earlier, Bobo is just perfection in this, and I love to think of him as an Ashton dancer. He has the cleanliness, sensitivity, and lightness that make him well suited to the role Daphnis. My favorite moment was in his solo with the shepherd’s staff, where he performed a series of sissonnes that skipped into these beautiful fifths with such ease. Though I believe he is quite a tall dancer, he does have that boyish smile and it’s easy to believe him as this innocent youth. The aforementioned pas de deux with Lykanion is the perfect blend of sensual and guilt-ridden, and greatly contrasts the purity and playfulness exhibited in his pas de deux with Chloë at the end. Though not often seen, I do enjoy the partnership between Bobo and Coco, and am grateful that it has been caught on film yet again. Though Alina has the look of innocence necessary for Chloë, right down to the doe-eyed facial expressions, it’s Chloë’s fear when she is kidnapped by Bryaxis, bound and stripped to her undergarment in his conclave, that gives her acting skills a chance to shine, and it’s heartbreaking how forlorn this young girl is, as she is tossed back and forth between the coarse pirates, with the added challenge of having her wrists bound by rope. Comparing Cojocaru to the clip of Fonteyn above, as most will inevitably do, I think Fonteyn conveyed a maturation, a womanliness that is part of the famed Fonteyn mysique, and that Cojocaru doesn’t have, but the latter has a golden aura that makes her irresistibly charming as Chloë. Apples, and oranges—I like them both.
So far, a perfect record for Ashton ballets in my book (for another of his Greco-Roman themed ballets, I see a lot of Symphonic Variations in it), and I particularly love Ravel’s score too…it’s the kind of fluttery pastorale that makes us flutists cackle with glee (and our fingers cringe when we realize how awkward it is). It’s almost a soundscape at certain times, but also has these shimmering melodies that invoke images of nature and of the Grecian isles. I think the score has found much success in performance at classical music concerts, and I should hope Ashton’s ballet is on its way to having some of the same performance regularity. Still, it is recommended that you watch and decide for yourself whether or not that should be the case!
Daphnis and Chloë (in nine parts; Be sure to check the YouTube user for parts 4-9, which are only labeled “D & C” with a number. Or, visit my playlist)
Also, for further information on Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë, Catherine Hale’s article for ballet.co is a highly recommended read.