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Flash Review 1, 7-12: The Other Centennial
Celebrating Sir Frederick

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2004 Gus Solomons jr

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NEW YORK -- Frederick Ashton, Britain's choreographic genius -- unlike the U.S.'s George Balanchine, whose centenary we also celebrated this season -- was most renowned for his narrative ballets. It's interesting, then, that the grand celebration of Frederick Ashton's centennial, a highlight of this year's Lincoln Center Festival, July 6-25, opened with "Monotones I and II" (1965-66), one of the most purely abstract ballets in the ballet repertoire. Each section is a trio, set to Erik Satie pieces, orchestrated by Claude Debussy, Roland Manuel, and John Lanchberry, and both comprise pure classical vocabulary: perfect arabesques, attitudes, and precise, isolated jumps, all requiring meticulous clarity of execution.

In unitards, sprinkled with jewels, and sculpted gorgeously by Kevin Dreyer's light, dancers of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago: Jennifer Goodman, Stacy Joy Keller, and Calvin Kitten in I, and Victoria Jaiani with Michael Levine and Samuel Pergande in II, gave this diabolically difficult ballet a pristine performance, etching Ashton's twining poses and side by side unisons flawlessly into the cavernous volume of the Metropolitan Opera House stage.

The Ashton Celebration, presenting twelve of the choreographer's ballets performed by four world-renowned companies in whose repertoires they reside, has Olympic overtones: the adrenalin rush of competition for artistic supremacy. Putting their best feet forward, the three participating troupes on the first two evenings bristled with excitement. Soaring performances by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and K-Ballet Company thrilled the excited audiences.

"Enigma Variations" (1968) depicts actual characters in composer Edward Elgar's real life. The fact that Ashton wasn't particularly drawn to Elgar's music may explain why the ballet remains somewhat passionless. The ballet demonstrates the choreographer's enormous skill at interweaving unrelated characters into a seamless series of atmospheric vignettes with a whiff of narrative, presumably based on true episodes in Elgar's life: biography as ballet. It ends with a happy group photograph with his clan of acquaintances.

The Birmingham Royal (formerly the Sadler's Wells) Ballet acquits itself nicely in "Enigma," especially in variations by quick-legged, acrobatic jumpers Christopher Larsen as William Meath Baker, Robert Parker as a lively Arthur Troyte Griffith and Carol-Anne Millar as Dora Penny, hopping blithely on her toes. The entire cast, including Joseph Cipolla as Elgar and Silvia Jimenez as his wife, are well-coached and convincing dancer-actors. Staid, autumn-hued sets and costumes by Julia Trevelyan Oman give the piece a "Masterpiece Theatre" ambiance.

The Tokyo-based K-Ballet Company performed "Rhapsody," originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Collier of the Royal Ballet. Created in 1980 for the Queen Mother's 80th birthday and propelled by Rachmaninoff's familiar "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," the virtuoso showpiece is jam-packed with astonishing leaps and flourishes in male variations that are pure Misha. Founding director Tetsuya Kumakawa, a former principal with the Royal Ballet, stars. Kumakawa's an amazing dancer, who moves with the brash attack of a Ninja warrior. His dancing lacks Baryshnikov's finesse, but the contingent of Japanese fans in attendance especially devoured with relish every morsel of his cocky athleticism. And his ballerina, petite Viviana Durante, held her own with blisteringly quick footwork and fluid torso and arm carriage.

Ashton's mastery of detail shows here in his modulation of the corps: men pop their partners into the air in canon like champagne bubbles; skimming the ground, the women appear to glide magically in the grasp of their male partners -- a favorite Ashton movement choice -- and lavish port de bras that add theatrical elegance. He also builds dynamic tension by deftly mixing passages for corps men, corps women, solo variations, and a climactic romantic duet.

The influence of early modern dance can be seen in Birmingham Royal Ballet's rendition of "Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan" (1975), danced courageously by Molly Smolen with Duncan-esque, reckless abandon to the accompaniment of onstage pianist Kate Shipway. And "Dante Sonata" also evinces modern dance influence -- German Expressionism -- in forceful, emotional gestures, as Children of Light, in diaphanous white tunics, battle Children of Darkness, their bare limbs wrapped with black cords. This 1940 ballet was Ashton's anguished response to the looming war in Europe. Franz Liszt, arranged by Constant Lambert, furnished the somber aural backdrop, against which the two sides battle to a draw. The ballet ends with a stunning tableau: princes of Light (Robert Parker) and Darkness (Dominic Antonucci) held aloft by their minions like tortured crucifixes.

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago rendered the 1937 "A Wedding Bouquet" with wit and charm. Gertrude Stein's rhythmically repetitious, non-sequitur text, read by former Joffrey Ballet dancer Christian Holder -- sometimes obscured by Lord Berners's lively music -- spiked the humor. Eccentric wedding guests prepare nuptials for a Bridegroom with a past (Willy Shivers) and a seemingly demure Bride (Emily Patterson), who sheds her gown and turns into a sex kitten in their pas de deux of near-miss encounters that belies latent tensions in the relationship. One of the groom's former lovers, demented Julia (Maia Wilkins) and her dog Pepe (Jennifer Goodman), and tipsy Josephine (Britta Lazenga) constantly disrupt the peace, until guests invite the latter to leave the party.

The New York City Opera Orchestra was in fine form under the batons of Leslie B. Dunner (JBC), Barry Wordsworth (Birmingham Royal), and Anthony Twiner (K-Ballet.) The Ashton Celebration, which also includes symposia on the man and his choreography, runs through July 17 and concludes with performances by London's Royal Ballet.

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