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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.
(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
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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