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Flash Review 2, 5-28: After a Fashion
From Rambert, Essays on Ashton

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2004 Josephine Leask

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LONDON -- The highlight of Wednesday's performance by Rambert Dance Company at Sadler's Wells was a recreation of "A Tragedy of Fashion." Originally choreographed by the quintessentially English choreographer Frederick Ashton in 1926 for Marie Rambert's ballet company, then called Ballet Club, the work is a stylish comedy about the tragic events within a fashion house or salon. (Click here to see a photograph of Rambert and Ashton in the work.)The reworking by choreographer Ian Spink is a close collaboration with designers Antony McDonald, long-time collaborator of Spink, and Juliette Blondelle. It captures the spirit of the 1920s with frivolous costumes and eccentric stage sets consisting of a huge jacket in the process of being tailored and a gigantic pair of scissors. While the costumes worn by most of the characters within the ballet are spectacularly lavish 1920s haute couture, those worn by the 'models' could be from the contemporary cat walk, as they are unashamedly brash and ridiculous.

Spink's choreography is ballet-based contemporary and while this 'modern' version includes new designs, and music by Elena Kats-Chernin, it sticks as closely as possible to the spirit of the original. The characters are all highly theatrical and camp, but the really intriguing ones are Duchic the couturier and his two female business partners, named the Orchidees. These androgynous women, who puff on cigarette holders throughout the piece, are meant to be strong, ambitious and 'sexually ambiguous' characters typical of the type of women who aspired to careers in the male dominated fashion industry of the '20s. (Nothing's changed today.) The rest of the cast -- muses, models, friends and hangers on, a stiff old patron and his glamorous but formidable wife -- convey the decadence and superficiality of a fashion designer's salon with their love affairs, petty quarrels, bitchiness and rivalries.

While the dancers put as much into the performance as they can and while the combination of ballet, tango and theatrical gestures clearly illustrates the colorful characters that Ashton had envisaged, I feel disappointed that the piece doesn't have more of a 'contemporary' pitch or employ more imaginative movement. At one moment, a male model appears with a huge pink sash attached to his bottom, dancing on pointe. It's amusing for the first few minutes, but seems quite gimmicky, a rather cheap thrill. But maybe that's the whole point of the work. It's fun, stylish and that's about all.

Another tribute to Ashton is "Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan," a solo originally choreographed for Lynn Seymour by Ashton in 1976. This piece was inspired by Duncan's free flowing Greek inspired draperies, bare feet and dancing on an empty stage in response to classical music. It's a real piece of dance history, even when you see it performed on a young Rambert dancer (Amy Hollingsworth) with her (different) angular and highly technically trained body. The movement and the expression with which it is performed evoke the early Mothers of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis, Loie Fuller and of course Duncan herself, characterized by simple skips, jumps and running, shallow back bends and low leg balances and the use of props such as billowing silk scarves and rose petals, so far from the athleticism and rigor of today's contemporary dance, but so refreshingly simple and emotive. Every action is inspired by the mood of Brahms's music and so each dance contains child-like emotions which are variations on sadness and happiness. In the program notes, Ashton remembers Duncan as possessing "a quality I can only describe by saying that when she moved she left herself behind." That is exactly what this solo demonstrates.

Finally, as a complete contrast I want to mention the short work which opened this Ashton-inspired programme, "Linear Remains," by Rambert dancer and associate choreographer Rafael Bonachela. The piece consisted of highly articulated movement mainly presented through a series of knotty, complex lifts with phenomenally striking lighting. The dancers really excelled in this work, which showed off their sharp, virtuosic ability, and their bodies seemed to develop/expand into symbiotic sculptures framed by the intense lighting. The work seemed to capture the youth and energy of its choreographer, who originally made the piece as a private exploration of his own individual style with no intentions of it being performed on stage.

(Editor's Note: "Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan" will be performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet this July at the Lincoln Center Festival.)

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