Thursday's talk was given by Jane Pritchard of the Victoria and Albert Museum (she curated the excellent Diaghilev exhibition that was seen in London, Quebec City, and Washington DC in the last couple of years). Her topic was "Ashton: The Rambert Years". In introducing her, Iain Webb described himself as a "true bunhead" obsessed with the history of dance (a statement borne out by his personal library of hundreds of ballet books) who believes that the preservation of ballet's heritage is so vital, not least to inspire the dancers themselves.
Pritchard started off by saying "After last night's performance it's clear that if I want to see Ashton as he ought to be danced, I need to come to Sarasota."
She reiterated Ashton's adoration of Pavlova, whose pliability of body and use of every inch of the body influenced his work in particular.
Much research needs still to be done on dance in England's sea resorts in the early 20th century. For instance, Ashton's Jew Suss opened in Blackpool in 1929, went to London and then toured widely throughout the country. A photo of the dancers carrying garlands prefigures Ashton's subsequent use of ribbons, most notably in La Fille mal Gardee. Throughout his early years, Ashton choreographed in a wide range of spaces: tiny stages, large stages, night clubs and so on, and became adept at suiting ballets to the space for which they were created.
Ashton's Tragedy of Fashion, a comic tale of a dress designer who cannot please his customers with his designs and ultimately commits suicide with his tailoring scissors, was produced for Marie Rambert's Ballet Club, and is considered the beginning of 20th century British ballet. On seeing it, Ninette de Valois said to Rambert, "You have found yourself a REAL choreographer".
Rambert's Ballet Club was called a "club" because it performed on Sundays (plus one other day). At the time it was illegal to perform on Sundays except in "private clubs'".
Ashton said his decision to join Ida Rubinstein's company in 1928-29 was better than if he had joined Diaghilev's troupe, particularly because of the opportunity to work with Nijinska. Nijinska never did anything with a straight torso, a characteristic that Ashton took to heart.
Back in London again with Rambert, they worked at the Mercury Theatre, a converted church in Ladbroke Road in the Notting Hill area of London. The building (which Iain Webb said he dreamt of buying and converting into a dance museum) has since been converted into condos but the name of the theatre and the statue of Mercury is still visible.
The film The Red Shoes , in which Marie Rambert had a cameo role, alluded to the Mercury with one scene ostensibly taking place there.
A staircase remaining from the church cut across the back of the stage at the Mercury, and Ashton incorporated this into his ballets, such as Foyer de danse (1932), a ballet inspired by Degas for which film has been found and the Royal Ballet is currently working on reconstructing, having managed to recreate ten minutes. Ashton was later to incorporate stairs into other ballets, such as La Fille mal gardée.
At this time, Ashton also came to know the African-American dancer Buddy Bradley, who was starring in commercial theatre. From Bradley Ashton became familiar with jazz.
The Camargo Society was an association of artists from different organizations, a self-conscious attempt to commission ballets as a collaboration of choreographers, artists, and composers as Diaghilev did. It operated for 3 years and it was for the Camargo Society that Ashton created Facade, which he later took with him when he joined the Vic-Wells Ballet so that he himself could have a role (the tangoing "Dago") which allowed him to stand up to Robert Helpmann and Harold Turner, the stars of the Vic-Wells.
In 1931 Ashton created The Lady of Shalott based on Tennyson's poem. In this he used a mirror gimmick with one dancer behind a screen mirroring the actions of another in front of the screen, a motif he was to use again in Valses Nobles et Sentimentales [similar devices are also seen in Cranko's Onegin and as far back as Bournonville's La Ventana].
Valentine's Eve in 1935 was another precursor of Valses Nobles, a romantic version of La Ronde, where one of two lovers moves on to the next partner in succession. A heart is passed between them. All of the relationships are unrequited.
One of his last ballets of the 30s was Horoscope (1938), one of the ballets that the Vic-Wells company had to leave behind in Holland when it fled before the Nazi invasion. It is now lost because the music was never retrieved, but it seems to be a precursor to Monotones.
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