Ashton Celebration: The Royal Ballet Dances Frederick Ashton is true to its title, offering both onstage and offstage tributes to Frederick Ashton, one of the twentieth century’s choreographic giants and architect of the English style. Through six ballets and fifteen minutes of interview footage, we get a look at the particularities and peculiarities of Ashton, and the rigor undergone to preserve the works. The ballets represent a full range of flavors in Ashton’s work, from the steamy, serpentine Monotones I to the heartbreakingly romantic Marguerite and Armand. The DVD was filmed live at the Royal Opera House in February 2013.
One of the special features on the DVD is a series of interview clips on the subject of the Frederic Ashton Foundation, whose aim is to perpetuate the legacy and work of the choreographer. Among comments from stagers and dancers about the preservation of the choreographer’s intent and style, Anthony Dowell makes a very important point: in all of this, the aim is not to “make museum pieces,” but to keep the works alive and in good custody so they remain relevant. Rojo adds the observation that the sheer difficulty of the choreography keeps the ballets challenging, even as dancers become more and more technically skilled.
The comparison is often drawn between Ashton and George Balanchine, but it’s especially striking in La Valse, the first ballet on the program, because Balanchine used the same Ravel score for a work of his own. Frederick Ashton did for British ballet what Balanchine did in the US: He defined a style, fiendishly athletic but with a different emphasis, more subtle but no less expressive. Ashton’s La Valse is most interesting for the complexities of epaulement within a standard choreographic composition. The whole affair sumptuously dark, a rich painting of Ravel’s unnerving score. It all dissolves into giddy, brassy chaos as the curtain descends on a corps de ballet of dozens and three principal couples.
Next are two very different pas de deux, the Meditation de Thais, set to Massenet, and Voices of Spring, set to Strauss. The first is aching and exotic, a la La Bayadere; the second is a playful showpiece more along the lines of Spring Waters. I don’t think this particular Voices of Spring is the most satisfying example available on video; Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell perform with great competence but little dimension.
Monotones I and II follow, yet another contrast to the works already seen, and another differing pair by themselves. Clad in unitards and skull-hugging caps (swampy golden-yellow in Monotones I, celestial white in Monotones II), these dancers look nothing like the waltzers in their tails and gowns or the earthy, flowing costumes of both the pas de deux. These two trios are deceptively simple, flowing but reserved, subtle yet powerful. Marianela Nunez, Nehemiah Kish, and Ed Watson are especially mesmerizing in Monotones II, all moving as if propelled by some external, other-worldly current.
The passion and drama of Marguerite and Armand absolutely steals the show on Ashton Celebration; I would buy the DVD for this ballet alone. Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin are the embodiment of romance and painful misunderstanding in this “evocation poetique” based on The Lady of the Camellias. The majority of the forty-minute piece consists of pas de deux of limitless variety, conveying everything from the piqued interest of a portentous first glance to the ardor of true love to the torture of heartbreak. Some of the most moving moments are those of stillness, where Ashton has allowed Liszt’s thrilling score to pierce the heart of the viewer.
Ashton Celebration is a worthwhile addition to the video libraries of Ashton fans for its representation of works dramatic to modernist, spanning nearly twenty years of his career. It showcases strong performances all around by the artists of the Royal Ballet. It’s my hope that more videos of this kind—highlighting Ashton’s ballets and the process of preserving them—will be forthcoming, especially given the small number of companies who perform Frederick Ashton’s work.