Ashton’s Month in Ashton Month

22 Jul

Continuing with the celebration of my unofficial Ashton month, what could be more appropriate than viewing A Month in the Country?  You may recall that this was the ballet that got away from me…when I visited Washington D.C. to see Manon, the Royal Ballet also brought a mixed bill which included this Ashton work.  Obviously I knew about it, but just like it never occurred to me to see multiple casts of Manon, it also never occurred to me to see both shows, because for whatever reason I thought you just buy your one ticket and then that’s it.  Or perhaps my wallet knew better and was communicating with me telepathically or I was too preoccupied with plotting to steal the Hope Diamond.  Regardless, I missed out and feel rather ashamed that I’ve still yet to see an Ashton ballet live.  The fact that I got to see a MacMillan was serendipitous; the fact that I completely failed to cash in on an Ashton opportunity is just stupid.  Balanchine’s stranglehold on the repertories of most American companies is just salt in the wound—neoclassical British choreography is much too scant here.

No commercial recording of the complete A Month in the Country is available for sale, but somehow it is on YouTube (perhaps a videotape of a broadcast performance).  It’s a unique opportunity in that the principal roles of Natalia Petrovna and Beliaev were originated by Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell respectively who also dance them in the taped performance.  I read in the Façade mini book too that Ashton was a stickler for first casts and the only time he ever got into an argument with Dame Ninette de Valois was over casting.  I forget exactly how it was cited in the book, but it was just a tidbit about Ashton being unhappy with the idea of a second cast because creating a ballet with certain dancers in mind is like a masterpiece painting—that’s how the choreographer originally sees his work.  However, as artistic director, de Valois also had concerns about money and I’m guessing the dancers’ health as well.  Guessing, or hoping.

A Month in the Country is based on novelist/playwright Ivan Turgenev’s play of the same name.  Interestingly enough, like Ashton did with The Dream and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his Month is an extraction from the play.  I’m curious to know what prompted Ashton to trim the content of his ballets from the plays since obviously, he has done amazing full length works but on the other hand how many times has Tim Gunn spoken of the importance of editing?  Many a time, friends…many a time.

Month is accompanied by a John Lanchberry orchestration of Chopin works, which is so perfectly matched with the mid-nineteenth century setting in an aristocratic Russian home (Turgenev himself grew up in a wealthy family).  It’s fascinating how theatrical the ballet is, with attention to authenticity; the set is realistic rather than “tricking the eye” (i.e. painting something two dimensional to look three dimensional) and the costuming is closer to actual clothing.  For example, the men aren’t wearing tights and ballet slippers but trousers and character shoes.  Were it not for the shortened dresses on the women and the pointe shoes, much of the set and costumes could really be used for a production of the actual play.  What I find most extraordinary about these production values is how it alters the way the dancing tells the story.  When I think of one of MacMillan’s story ballets, the choreography tells the story which is very much “danced,” but in Ashton’s Month it’s almost as if the choreography and music replace the dialogue.  I don’t know that this is all that significant of a distinction (either that or I’m not making the distinction very clear) but you (well, I) could actually hear Chopin’s notes and see the movements as words that proceeded to divulge the story as opposed to watching movements to music that might express an idea or show a relationship between two characters.

Of the Ashton works that I’ve seen, the choreography for Month struck me as Ashton’s most innovative use of port de bras.  I tend to think that choreographing arms is the hardest thing to do without making it look like a bunch of flailing.  Right away, in the opening solo for Natalia there’s all this amazing arm movement with a myriad of different positions of the head, just icing on the cupcake.  It’s unusual in that it was one of the few times I was completely drawn away from what the legs and feet were doing and watching (mouth agape and utterly enamoured mind you!) at what was going on from the waist up.  Other characters follow suit with their introductory solos except for Natalia’s son Kolia, who does this INSANE solo, dancing while manipulating a ball.  I find the idea absolutely terrifying because anything that is designed to roll is unpredictable and personally I don’t do so well with large round objects that hurtle through space (needless to say, I’m not good at sports or catching things) and here’s Kolia leaping and pirouetting with a fleet-footed ease.  Ashton’s choreography is brilliant here, not only in styling Kolia to be a boyish youth, but also in how the prop is danced with, one of Ashton’s signature choreographic devices.

However, this is the story of Natalia and Baliaev, and in this case, Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell.  Natalia is…essentially, a bored housewife.  Though she is married to a wealthy man, has a son and also has the attention of a doting admirer named Rakitin,  there’s still something missing.  Enter Baliaev, who is supposed to be Kolia’s tutor, but seems to catch the eye of all the women in the household including Natalia’s adopted daughter Vera and one of their maids.  It all gets just a little too soap opera crazy and thankfully the original play is indeed a comedy so it’s not meant to be taken too seriously.  Natalia is perhaps embittered by a life of empty decadence and is the original queen cougar as she is in love with the young Baliaev.  They share a loving pas de deux, but things get crazy when Vera discovers them and it’s Rakitin who convinces Beliaev that the two of them must leave.  I’m sure this is all explained in the play in better detail, but the minor tragical point is, Beliaev is forced to leave, thus forcing Natalia back into her life of boredom.

Seymour is superb in this role (duh) and gives a commanding performance as the two faced Natalia, who hides her love for Baliaev from her husband.  It’s an interesting role that requires quite a mature ballerina and technique is almost useless because it’s the range of emotions including boredom, love, anger and devastation in such a short period of time that make the role so demanding.  Dowell’s acting skills are no less inferior (he even looks like a different person in every video I’ve ever seen of him.  Were it not for those gorgeous giraffe legs I’m not sure I’d recognize him every time) and even though Baliaev is kind of a hound dog, the dancing is sublime.  There were moments where you really get to see the stretch of Dowell’s plié (one of the most underestimated moves in all of ballet).

Can’t say enough about how wonderful the ballet is and what a blessing it is that it’s on YouTube (the user quillerpen has one of the best YouTube channels…subscribe or die).  Without further ado, here’s Ashton’s A Month in the Country (in five parts):

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