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Frederick Ashton - a study in neglect.

With some audiences and writers it became almost a mantra--the great classic choreographers of the twentieth century were George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and Antony Tudor. A few, taking a more historical perspective, might insert Michel Fokine and even Leonide Massine. Others could add, with complete justification, the name of Jerome Robbins, while dissolute Europeans would make a plea for-whisper the name quietly--John Cranko or even Maurice, you know, B-E-J-A-R-T. But the classic choreographic trinity of okay names remained intact: Balanchine, Ashton, and Tudor. And now they are dead . . . born within a few years of one another in the first decade of the twentieth century, they all died within a few years of one another in the ninth decade. I still recall how secretly pleasured Fred Ashton was--Dr. Schadenfreude was always one of his favorite psychologists--at being the last to go. Well, who wouldn't be?

However, George Balanchine--usually the most highly regarded of the three--has definitely had the last laugh. Today, thanks to the brilliant and unswervingly dedicated custodianship of the often-maligned Peter Matins, more than ten years after his death his reputation stands as high as ever; his ballets are performed now as frequently as they were in his lifetime. Even that customary initial dip in evaluation immediately following those first eulogies--a dip that can be seen in reputations as varied as those of Picasso, Stravinsky, and Henry Moore--appears to have been avoided by the nimbly dead Balanchine and the loyal ministrations of his ever-watchful Balanchine Trust.

Somewhat similar organizations safeguard the other two posthumous careers, but those of Ashton and Tudor have, at least for the present, almost withered on a freshly parched vine. The English-born Tudor, the patron guru and eternal artistic conscience of American Ballet Theatre, was for some years regarded as America's leading choreographer. And yet, during all of 1994 only two ballets of Tudor's will have been seen: Gala Performance and the very welcome and quite daring revival of the rare Echoing of Trumpets, both given, of course, by American Ballet Theatre, and for a total of just nine performances. ABT lacks a permanent home and has been--indeed still remains--in a severe financial crunch which has hampered all the good intentions that Kevin McKenzie, the new artistic director, undoubtedly has toward preserving his company's past.

The even more surprising circumstance is the neglect that has overtaken, and almost engulfed, the Ashton repertory. For years Ashton was one of America's favorite choreographers. His reputation in New York at least matched and possibly surpassed his reputation in LOndon, yet this season his work has been represented in New York only three performances of Les Patineurs given by Joffrey Ballet and three performances of The Dream by his own Royal Ballet, visiting the Metropolitan Opera House.

However, New York is not Ashton's hometown. No company here (despite the fact that he created two ballets for New York City Ballet and has works in the repertories of ABt, San Francisco Ballet, and particularly Joffrey Ballet, which has the largest Ashton collection in the world outside of the Royal) has any real responsibility for Ashton's survival. The Royal Ballet has. And the sad fact is that while it still tends to refer to Ashton as its "Founder Choreographer," it has in practice done very poorly by him. It seems that Royal Ballet's present director, Anthony Dowell, believes that the work of Kenneth MacMillan, Ashton's successor, is at least of equal value to that of Ashton--an opinion, though obviously sincere, that would be far from everyone's taste. In recent seasons, while three or four nineteenth-century classics are still permitted to maintain a viselike grip on the Royal;s repertory, there has been a heavy preference for MacMillan over Ashton.

A Royal press release about future programming, after admitting that "the company has been criticized for neglecting Ashton revivals," continues: "Dowell's 1994-1995 schedule addressed this perceived imbalance. Over the course of the season, Royal Ballet's audience will have a choice of thirteen Ashton evenings." Which is not much, but I suppose it's a start. The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden has announced revivals of La Valse, Daphnis and Chloe (interestingly with new design), Symphonic Variations, Facade, Rhapsody, the full-evening Cinderella, and a group of various divertissements, including a little-known Raymonda pas de deux, while The Dream continues in repertory. Meanwhile, Birmingham Royal Ballet--which is just about to get a new director, the choreographer David Bintley--has announced the revival of Enigma Variations as well as, most encouragingly, the very first British production of Tudor's Pillar of Fire.

Dowell himself was an impeccable Ashton dancer, and he has done Ashton many services--a courageous revival of Ondine, for example, and personally I approved of his staging of The Tales of Beatrix Potter, although this proved unpopular with the British press--but he was more of MacMillan's generation. And MacMillan was still alive through most of Dowell's stewardship. One hopes that this present miniburst of interest in Ashton is neither too late and too little, nor a flash in the pan. Personally, I have little doubt that the lasting value of Ashton's ballets will stand the test of time if they are not sabotaged by the cruelties of history.

Ballets are very fragile things, even in these days of video records and comparatively sophisticated dance notations. There is a vast difference in the Ashton heritage--which, as in the cases of Bournonville, Petipa, and Balanchine, is partly a matter of style--and the ballets of MacMillan and Bintley, and, for that matter, Ninette de Valois herself. They are all admirable choreographers, but Ashton is to British ballet what Bournonville was to the Danes. Not to understand this, here and now, could well result in the Royal Ballet's becoming just another provincial European troupe. British fair play may want to give good old Sir Fred and good old Sir Ken equal time, but they did not have equal talent. One of them was a choreographic genius, and the other was a jolly useful chap to have on your team.

Clive Barnes is a Dance Magazine senior editor.
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Title Annotation:failure of ballet companies to perform the works of the late British choreographer
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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