Not much could cure these post-New York blues, but luckily, I’ve been holding onto a secret weapon for some time now—the ‘Frederick Ashton’ DVD featuring Les Patineurs, several divertissements, and Scènes de Ballet. Notorious for saving something special for a rainy day (well, sunny lately in Seattle!), I can’t think of anything better to inspire me than a mélange of Ashton ballets. While the DVD is well worth the money, with it being relatively new it’s still on the expensive side. Luckily, there is a more affordable option for Ashton aficionados, over at OperaPassion, where they sell a recording of a broadcast of the Ashton Centenary in 2004, for a virtual steal $4.95! In fact, most of what’s released on the Opus Arte DVD is actually the same—Scènes de Ballet and the divertissements among them, with the only differences being that the Opus Arte DVD comes with Patineurs and the recorded DVD by OperaPassion comes with Daphnis and Chloë instead. Bonus features come with both, including interviews and rehearsal footage, but it’s here where the OperaPassion DVD actually takes the cake, offering many interviews throughout with some original cast members, while the Opus Arte DVD only has extras for Patineurs. So, really, the solution is to stop worrying about an inconsequential amount of money and buy them both—you know I did!
As much as I loved both DVDs, I can’t say that they’re right for everyone because I do think you have to have a minimal amount of admiration for Sir Fred to get the most out of viewing them. Most of the divertissements simply won’t stand alone, and are much more interesting as glimpses into different phases of Sir Fred’s illustrious career as a choreographer. While most of the works were new to me, I’d have to say that none of them really rank above my favorite Ashton ballets. Still, their inclusions are important for both historical and sentimental purposes, and Dame Monica Mason was right to include them for the Ashton Centenary. While it’s easy to lament a list of Ashton ballets that have yet to be released commercially, the variety is unparalleled (although, I secretly thought that a DVD containing Ashton’s most famous abstract ballets like Scènes de Ballet, Symphonic Variations, Rhapsody, and even Birthday Offering would have been ideal).
What I’ve come to realize is that one of the things I love most about Ashton is that his dances have a way of capturing the spirit of an idea. Scènes de Ballet pinpoints the intricacy and quirkiness of Stravinsky’s score; Five Brahms Waltzes couldn’t possibly be a complete reconstruction of Isadora Duncan’s choreography (Ashton having choreographed it over fifty years after having seen her), but summons the essence of her style and brings to life the very inspiration Ashton felt having seen her with his own eyes; Les Patineurs is not merely a direct translation of figure skating skills into ballet steps, but plays on the quality of movement that gliding over ice allows for. Somehow Ashton managed to communicate ideas so clearly that it took out the guesswork for the audience without inundating them with blatancies. It makes more and more sense why I would fall in love with Ashton ballets so much because I’m an escapist with a classicist aesthetic. I don’t always need “happy” ballets but I can always count on Ashton to transport me to another world or invoke such strong emotions that I forget about my real ones for a while. Speaking as someone who tends to be more in thought than not, watching an Ashton ballet is truly a gift every time.
Though Ashton is typically known for his cleverness and charm (especially in narrative ballets), I was quite surprised by how much I liked his Scènes de Ballet. I don’t always find it easy to listen to Stravinsky’s music, but the purity of line throughout is just too interesting to see! What’s also fascinating is to see an interpretation of Stravinsky by a ballet genius that is not Balanchine, with whom Stravinsky was famous for collaborating with. Rather than modernize as Balanchine often did with his interpretations of Stravinsky, Scènes still uses classical vocabulary and was heavily inspired by Euclidean geometry. It’s mentioned that Ashton set choreographic patterns in Scènes to be pleasing to look at from any angle. Stylistically, Scènes finds such simple pathways that there’s a lot of “point A to point B” with no excessive flourishes and the overall effect is so tastefully chic that I couldn’t help but appreciate the score way more than I would listening to it on its own. Yoshida Miyako (though my Japanese is dwindling in quality, it’s still too weird to me to refer to her as “Miyako Yoshida”) was perfect in Scènes, with a tempered charisma that is sweet and transparent like honey. With crisp arabesques and nimble arms, a photographer could’ve taken photos in rapid succession and each one of them would’ve been clear as crystal.
Yoshida performing a solo from Scènes de Ballet:
Another favorite was the Thaïs Pas de Deux, which was prefaced by an interview with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, who told a funny (and somewhat horrifying) story of Sir Fred, while taking a curtain call, asking the audience if they wanted to see the pas de deux again. Sibley and Dowell were relieved just to get through it the first time with no mistakes because they had very few rehearsals, but obliged the audience anyway with an encore performance. The pas de deux is set to Méditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs, and with my tastes being much more suited to Massenet, I find the music absolutely gorgeous. Unsurprisingly, I find the choreography very moving as well, with the male role searching, in a dreamlike state for a lost soul mate. It’s tragic because the female character is detached and aloof for the most part, as if her spectral form can’t recognize the man she once loved. It’s not until she bestows a kiss upon him, does she recall their affections for but a second before disappearing into the ether. On the DVD Thiago Soares danced the quixotic lead made on Dowell, a vision of strength and soulful dark eyes, while Mara Galeazzi performed Sibley’s role like an astral breeze. It’s one of those pas de deux that left me breathless without even realizing it, as if time hadn’t passed at all.
Mara Galeazzi and Thiago Soares in the Thaïs Pas de Deux:
While I’d like to give a quick shout out to Voices of Spring, one of my favorite pas de deux (danced with aplomb by Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta), I do have to dedicate this last paragraph to Tamara Rojo and her arresting performance in Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. To see her dance barefoot is jaw-dropping for one, but the conviction in which she performed this piece is unbelievable. There aren’t many dancers who have the pathos to dance Five Brahms Waltzes appropriately, which is probably why it doesn’t make it into even the Royal Ballet’s repertory very often, however, as is often the case, Tamara is the exception to the rule. Opposite to Scènes, I have no problem relating to Chopin and it’s modern choreography that I have to work to discern for myself, but Five Brahms Waltzes doesn’t ask for much else than to simply delight in the presence of this magnificent woman. Like chocolate and peanut butter, Rojo and Ashton couldn’t be a more heavenly combination to me. This, is truly happiness!
Tamara Rojo in Five Brahms Waltzes: