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Review 1, 4-16: Facades
The Other Centennial: San Francisco Ballet Fetes Ashton
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Tsao
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SAN FRANCISCO -- While
many people are aware that this is the 100th anniversary of George
Balanchine's birth, in the United States it is less acknowledged
that it is also Frederick Ashton's. In England, it could easily
be the other way around. Directly comparing these two choreographic
masters is like comparing pirouettes and grand jetes, but what is
interesting to note is their similarities. Ashton, like Balanchine,
was an immigrant to the country where he produced most of his work.
Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador on September 17, 1904, Ashton spent most
of his childhood in Lima, Peru, only moving to England at the age
of 15 to attend school, where he was teased because of his Spanish
accent. It is often said that it takes an outsider to truly see
and produce an artistic distillation of a national character or
essence. Balanchine, a Russian trained at the Maryinsky Theater,
is often considered the quintessential American choreographer. And
Ashton, the Anglo-Peruvian, is thought of as being the ultimate
Though Ashton and Balanchine
were not friends, their lives crossed on numerous occasions and
they had more than once choreographed ballets to the same music.
The Royal Ballet danced Balanchine's works and Ashton choreographed
two pieces for New York City Ballet. Because he lacked the prestigious
ballet and musical training of Balanchine, Ashton, always suffering
from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis his rival, worshiped the Russian,
who apparently had but grudging respect for him in return. Each
accused the other of being rude, but who really knows how they felt
under the surface or if these attitudes were in part motivated by
San Francisco Ballet,
after presenting two programs of Balanchine, is now running almost an
entire one dedicated to Ashton works, presenting "Monotones I and
II," "Thais Pas de Deux" and "Symphonic Variations," with Kenneth
MacMillan's "Elite Syncopations" closing the evening.
In thinking about the
selection of these specific ballets out of Ashton's enormous body
of work (seen Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House), I wondered
how much the financial factor influenced the choices of which works
to re-stage. Both "Monotones I and II" and "Symphonic Variations"
require six dancers, in simple costumes, and the "Thais" only two.
How wonderful it would have been to see his "La Fille mal gardee," "Two Pigeons" or even early works
like "Facade" or "A Wedding Bouquet" (on the bill for this summer's
Lincoln Center Ashton festival), but, of course, the expense might
have been prohibitive. I'm not complaining, just wishfully musing
on other possibilities. Seeing ballets in radically different styles
would have been an eye-opener for those less familiar with the English
choreographer's work, as it would be useful to offer a broader Balanchine
range in the SFB repertory, as I commented last season. (I lived in London for two years
in the early 1970s and went to the Royal Ballet as often as I, a
starving dance student, could afford. The Joffrey Ballet also brought
its Ashton collection here on tour in the 1970s and '80s.)
As the introductory
Satie music gently drifts upward from the orchestra pit Tuesday,
the air itself relaxes and breathes more calmly. The curtain rises
for "Monotones I" on a dark stage with three dancers, in pale greenish
yellow costumes. They begin first with simple steps in unison and
gradually begin to head in different directions, or explore variations
on the themes. The choreography is so formal and structured that
there is no place to hide the slightest misstep. The dancers, Nicole
Starbuck, Ruben Martin and Rachel Viselli, seem acutely aware of
that and move somewhat stiffly. As they gain confidence that they
are actually doing fine, they relax and move with more freedom.
The "Trois Gnossiennes," originally for piano and later orchestrated
by John Lanchbery, creates an atmosphere of timeless mystery. This
elusiveness is reinforced by the costumes, designed by Ashton, which
hint at both ancient exotic and extra-terrestrial.
"Monotones II," to "Trois
Gymnopedies," in Debussy and Roland-Manuel's orchestration and like
'I' staged by Lynn Wallis, is the ballet that carries us beyond
the known galaxies and into that deep space which folds back on
itself, leaving us both far away from ourselves and contemplating
our innermost consciousness. Not only has Ashton made exquisite
sequences of steps, but Muriel Maffre, Brett Bauer and Moises Martin
move together with such rapport and attention to nuance that they
transcend being human. We all exist in a moment of suspended reality
as they pull us into the unworldly place they define.
I am a little apprehensive
about the "Thais Pas de Deux," after seeing the Dance Theatre of
Harlem give a very indifferent performance of it a few months ago,
in a production reviewed earlier here by Gus Solomons jr. The DTH dancers lacked the
necessary fluidity and weightlessness; even the veil was of fabric
too stiff to waft or drape properly. Created for Antoinette Sibley
and Anthony Dowell, at first it received mixed reviews, though Marie
Rambert, Ashton's mentor, considered it to be one of his masterpieces.
The "Meditation" from
Massenet's opera "Thais" is the serenely romantic musical canvas
on which Ashton paints this dreamlike encounter between a man and
his vision of a woman. Staged for SFB by Dowell, the choreography
looks deceptively simple, but to create the illusion of effortless
grace in very difficult lifts can be daunting. Yuan Yuan Tan and
Pierre-Francois Vilanoba do an excellent job on the technical level.
I wish only for more quiet passion, and lingering desire.
staged here by Wendy Ellis Somes, is one of the masterpieces of
the 20th century. To Cesar Franck's music of the same name, with
costumes and set by Sophie Fedorovitch, Ashton choreographed a work
of truly profound simplicity. As the curtain rises the audience
applauds the white and green (in the shade of a leaf unfurling in
the spring) backdrop intersected by sweeping concentric black curves.
The six dancers are poised, ready to begin. The three women wear
short white draped tunics and glittering headpieces, while the men
are dressed in white tights and shirts that bare one shoulder and
have black accenting strips.
For the next half an
hour not one dancer exits the stage and whatever steps each dancer
executes, they must stay in harmony with all the other dancers.
The star of this ballet is the ensemble. A perfect cast is a rare
find and here we have one in Vanessa Zahorian, Julie Diana, Tina
LeBlanc, Joan Boada, Damian Smith, and Nicholas Blanc. They maintain
the balance between the various solos, duets, trios and group passages,
not losing their individuality but avoiding letting it interfere
with creating a unifying ambience. Often the steps and floor patterns
reveal the genesis for some of the material that Ashton later used
in the 'Monotones.' Not that he repeated himself, but it shows his
work evolved in a logical progression.
The SFB dancers deserve
the chance to dance this brilliant choreographer's work more frequently
so that the style comes to feel natural for them, in the same way
that they are at home in the Balanchine repertoire. This program
repeats tonight and Saturday night at 8 p.m., and at 2 p.m. Saturday
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