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In late autumn, Birmingham Royal Ballet gave a brief British provincial tour of the program "In Tribute to Frederick Ashton." Ashton, a classic choreographer, is generally regarded in America, if not in Britain, as second only to Balanchine. Because the company omitted from its New York season in early fall a widely anticipated sampling of the Ashton celebration it had earlier mounted, I ventured to the Yorkshire town of Bradford to see for myself these two programs that had proved the talk of the British ballet world. The talk did them justice--it was a magnificent demonstration not just of Ashton but also of David Bintley's splendid company.

One of these Ashton programs consisted of Scenes de Ballet, the first revival in more than forty years of Dante Sonata--not seen in New York since 1950---and Enigma Variations. The second program was the two-act The Two Pigeons--not seen in New York since 1963--and various other Ashton divertissements.

These programs showed not only Ashton's greatness, but also his versatility and simplicity, from the plotless Scenes de Ballet and the swirling drama of Dante Sonata to the rhapsodic love story of The Two Pigeons and those character vignettes of Enigma Variations, which miraculously seem to offer a magic window into late Victorian England. Personally, I was also unexpectedly impressed by the smaller miniatures in the second program's divertissement section--things I had almost forgotten, yet revealing marvels of the intersection of craftsmanship and invention come together with a kind of offhand genius.

Scenes de Ballet, the work most familiar to American audiences and one that would seem a natural for the New York City Ballet repertoire, was beautifully staged and danced. I saw two performances in which that led by Monica Zamora and Robert Parker had a distinct edge over a matinee helmed by Molly Smolen and Tiit Helimets. The ballet itself with all its cross-rhythms and formal intricacies is a subtler, and I feel more satisfying, evocation of Petipa grandeur than Balanchine's Theme and Variations. It is a twentieth-century masterpiece.

When Enigma Variations, one of Ashton's pantomimic ballets like A Month in the Country, was first staged in 1968, wonderful as it was, it seemed almost doomed to die with the perfection of its original cast (seen in New York a year later). Now thirty years later, with a variety of casts, with dancers who never even knew Ashton, it emerges with just the right mistily suggestive clarity of an autumnal day. Both Joseph Cipolla and the rather too-young Jonathan Payn make persuasive Elgars, but all the dancers sink into their roles with a beguiling authenticity.

However, the actual triumph of the program was the resuscitation from the dead of Dante Sonata. Having seen the ballet literally dozens of times during the 1940s and early 1950s, I was fascinated to see how this restoration held up. It had clearly been lovingly carded out by Jean Bedells, the ballet mistress at the time, and Pauline Clayden, who many, many times danced Fonteyn's role as the Leading Child of Light, helped by Pamela May, who superbly created her own role in the ballet's 1940 premiere.

The simple, almost stark Sophie Fedorovitch setting and costumes, inspired by Flaxman's nineteenth-century drawings for an edition of Dante's poem The Inferno, have been perfectly reproduced, and as the choreography unspooled I found my own visual spectator memory unspooling alongside it. Without help of either notation or video, but with visual recollection and muscle memory, this careful restoration of Ashton's allegory of good and evil inspired by Dante and Franz Liszt, with most of the cast barefoot, was absolutely thrilling.

I well recall the original cast, which debuted during World War II, and I was immeasurably impressed at how well its original passionate spirit had been captured. It is interesting that when he created Dante Sonata Ashton could have seen very little modern dance, except for European exponents such as Harald Kreutzberg and Kurt Jooss. Yet some of the choreography seems extraordinarily similar to Martha Graham's in her lyrical mood. By chance I saw American Ballet Theatre dancing Diversion of Angels the same week as I saw Dante Sonata, and the correspondences between the Ashton and Graham (or rather Graham as performed by classical dancers) seemed fascinating in flow and movement nuance.

Again the performances by the Birmingham troupe were exemplary--the better of the two casts being Ambra Vallo, Dorcas Walters and Wolfgang Stollwitzer leading the Children of Light with Mikaela Polley and Cipolla leading the Children of Darkness. Not so exemplary were the performances in The Two Pigeons, of which I caught one performance plus a full technical rehearsal with a different cast.

The Two Pigeons was originally created for this company in 1961, on Valentine's Day, as it happened, and its original cast was Lynn Seymour, Christopher Gable (pinch-hitting for an indisposed Donald Britton), Elizabeth Anderton and Robert Mead. The new cast in Bradford, led by a sophisticated and hopelessly miscast Zamora and a technically inadequate if charming Helimets, did not do the ballet full justice, and while in rehearsal Rachel Peppin looked more promising, Stollwitzer did not. Yet I am sure other casts give a better account of the ballet, which remains a small and delightful wonder. In North America it has been done by both the Houston Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, but New Yorkers never see it--a real loss.

The Ashton divertissements filling out The Two Pigeons program were a delight. I had completely forgotten: the Voices of Spring duet, here effervescently danced by Vallo and Parker, and the hardly remembered, beautiful Walk to the Paradise Garden, that choreographic essence of doomed love and lovers. More familiar--and beautifully staged by Seymour, its originator--were Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, here exquisitely danced by Leticia Muller.

When the company returns to the United States, I do hope it brings its Ashton ballets, as well as such other rarities in its possession, which it also dances extremely well.

For information on the BRB's New York 2000 season, see Exclusive Online Reviews--Archives at
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Feb 1, 2001

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