Sarasota Ballet is barely 24 years old, founded in 1990 by the former Stuttgart Ballet ballerina Jean Allenby-Weidner (now Goldstein). It was originally under the direction of the Haitian-Canadian Eddy Toussaint, and then for 13 years directed by Robert de Warren before Iain Webb took over in 2007.
The festival consists of four days of lectures, film presentations, and performances.
All lectures are in the historic Asolo theatre, an 18th-century theatre transported piece by piece from Asolo, Italy (near Venice) to the estate of the wealthy Ringling Circus owners in the 1950s.
The festival started off with a lecture by Ashton expert David Vaughan. Webb said in introducing him that Vaughan's magisterial biography of the choreographer had become known as "The Bible" in Sarasota Ballet circles, and that staff members importuning him with questions about Ashton when preparing publicity materials were told to "just look it up in the Bible!".
|L-R: David Vaughan, Iain Webb|
Vaughan promised those in attendance that if they weren't Ashton fans now (small chance of that in the crowd!) they would be by the end of the week, and gave us an overview of Ashton's life. Here I will just recount some of the stories about Ashton that were new to me.
Early in his career in London, when his family were trying to encourage him to work in the import-export business, his wages were 30 shillings a week - of which he spent 21 shillings on a weekly private ballet lesson with Leonide Massine.
In 1926 he had been taken in to Marie Rambert's company. She was planning a new ballet and Ashton showed her some moves he thought he would do for his own part. Before he knew it, she told him to do the whole ballet, which turned out to be A Tragedy of Fashion. It was a crucial stage, for it was also his first collaboration with the designer Sophie Fedorovich, who was a very close friend and artistic inspiration until her premature death.
Ashton then moved to Paris in search of greater opportunities and joined Ida Rubinstein's company. Rubinstein was not much of a dancer but used her considerable wealth to support her own ballet company, known as the "company of rehearsals" because they spent more time rehearsing than performing. Bronislava Nijinska's role was to create ballets in which Rubinstein could "totter on" (Vaughan's words) to be the star. Nijinska was a very talented choreographer and Ashton soaked up what he could from his time with her.
In the 30s Ninette de Valois lured Ashton from Rambert's company to her newly formed Vic-Wells Ballet, feeling that they needed a more classical choreographer to provide a balance with her own more expressionistic choreography. With Les Rendezvous in 1933, a vehicle for Alicia Markova, Ashton made his first major statement of classicism. At the time, Rambert's company had the reputation for being the "stylish" company, no matter if their costumes were made out of Marie Rambert's curtains or the cheapest material from the fabric shops. "You have no idea how DOWDY the Vic-Wells ballets were," said Rambert later. The fashionable people attended the Rambert performances, but Ashton brought this audience with him to de Valois's company.
Meanwhile, Ashton was also asked to go to New York to choreograph an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts. Thomson was adamant that the entire cast for this opera should be African-American, and since it was almost impossible at the time to find African-American ballet dancers, Ashton went to the dance halls of Harlem, picked three men and three women who seemed to him to have promising dance talent, took them to Hartford, Connecticut where the production was previewed before its New York run, and used them in the production. He recycled some ideas from Les Rendezvous in this opera.
He was also asked to create a ballet for Leonide Massine's Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, Devil's Holiday. This was supposed to premiere in September 1939 in London, but with the outbreak of war, the Ballets Russes dancers fled to New York, where the ballet had its premiere and was never seen by Ashton. It was later restaged thanks to the prodigious memory of Frederick Franklin.
During the Blitz, the Sadler's Wells Ballet soldiered on, performing matinees to avoid the nighttime air raids. In summer, they would manage to squeeze in two or three successive performances in one day, taking advantage of the longer daylight, the bombing raids not beginning till after nightfall.
At this time Ashton created a trilogy of ballets, the first being Dante Sonata about the conflict between good and evil and the futility of war. The inspiration for The Wise Virgins came from the fact that Ashton and the composer Constant Lambert had made a pact to read the Bible from beginning to end, in the hope that the war would be over by the time they finished it. The third ballet of the trilogy was The Wanderer, in collaboration with the wartime artist Graham Sutherland. A lift in this apparently represents an airplane. Ashton was called up to the RAF, but got leave to create The Quest based on Spenser's Faerie Queen.
At the end of the war, the question was, "What will become of English ballet?". By this time, de Valois's company had toured exhaustively (and exhaustingly) throughout Britain, and entertained the troops, so had come to be considered the national ballet company, and moved into the Royal Opera House. Ashton's first ballet after the war was the purely classical and abstract Symphonic Variations, a reaction against the literary ballets of Helpmann (e.g. Hamlet)., followed by Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.
He told a story about Helpmann, who was very busy not only dancing but also acting at the same time at the Old Vic. Feeling overburdened, Helpmann went to the indomitable director of the Old Vic, Lilian Bayliss, to ask for a raise. "Well," said Bayliss, "let's ask God." So Helpmann duly got down on his knees beside her and adopted a prayerful posture. After a few moments, Baylis emerged from her prayerful state and announced, "God said no."
At this point Iain Webb interjected to tell a story about when the Sarasota Ballet first staged Valses Nobles. Coming out of a rehearsal, he encountered the general manager of the company, ashen-faced, saying she'd had a call from a lawyer about the ballet, and he was to call back immediately. The lawyer demanded to know if Sarasota Ballet had the rights to perform the ballet, and were they sure it wasn't La Valse they were performing instead? When assured that it was indeed Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and that everything had been okayed by the rights holder, Anthony Russell-Roberts, Ashton's nephew, the lawyer said it couldn't possibly be so, because "David Vaughan says that ballet's been lost"! Valses Nobles et Sentimentales was in fact the last of his ballets of which he oversaw a revival, at the request of Peter Wright.
Webb recounted the story of another "lost" Ashton ballet. When at the Royal Ballet, he proposed to then Artistic Director Anthony Dowell doing a gala to include Ashton's Raymonda pas de deux. Dowell insisted that the ballet had been lost, but apparently someone had filmed it from the audience, and this film permitted its reconstruction. [ed. note: in a way, it's ironic that these illicit filmings, so frowned upon, end up preserving a lot of this so ephemeral art form.]
Vaughan talked a little about the three ballets on this evening's program:
Façade: one of Ashton's oldest extant ballets, dating from 1931,when he created it for the Camargo Society, with Alicia Markova and Lydia Lopokhova starring. He took this ballet, replete with Ashton's trademark humour, to Rambert and then to the Vic-Wells Ballet. At the time, Ashton was also working in the commercial theatre, choreographing for revues and cabarets, which served him in good stead in knowing how to entertain an audience. He based this ballet on the popular dances of the time such as the foxtrot and the tango.
Birthday Offering (1956) was created for the seven principal ballerinas of the Royal Ballet at the time, each of them having a solo, rather reminiscent of the fairy variations in the Prologue to Sleeping Beauty; it is in a way Ashton's homage to Petipa. In the company, the ballet came to be known as "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers".
Illuminations was created for New York City Ballet, with Tanaquil Le Clercq and Melissa Hayden in the roles of Sacred and Profane Love, the latter dancing in one pointe shoe and one bare foot. It fell out of the NYCB repertoire, then was revived by the Joffrey Ballet, and finally revived by the Royal Ballet, at which point Ashton inserted his signature "Fred Step" (posé, fondu, développé, pas de bourrée, pas de chat), a step he included like a talisman in almost all of his ballets, rather as Hitchcock always made a cameo appearance in his movies.
According to Vaughan, NYCB dancers did not take to working with Ashton, as they were used to working with Balanchine who was very precise about the musicality of his ballets whereas Ashton had a more "go with the flow" attitude to the music.
Finally, Vaughan had a couple of anecdotes about other Ashton ballets:
Enigma Variations: Elgar's daughter said to Ashton: "I don't know how you did it -- they (Elgar's friends depicted in the composition) were all like that ... and I couldn't stand any of them!"
The Dream: on its first performance was somewhat ignored by the critics, who paid more attention to the other two works on the program: Helpmann's Hamlet and a piece by MacMillan inspired by the sonnets. It was only on a later trip to New York that The Dream was acknowledged as the masterpiece it is.
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