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Monday, May 5, 2014

Sarasota Ballet Ashton Festival Day 3

The lunchtime Q&A was with Sir Peter Wright, whose beautiful versions of the classics, Giselle, Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Swan Lake grace the stages of many major companies, including the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet and its predecessors, of whom he was director for many years.
He started out by quoting Ninette de Valois: "Respect the past, herald the future, concentrate on the present."
He first met Frederick Ashton in 1943, when Ashton was in the RAF. Wright had run away from school and home, determined to be a dancer, of which his Quaker parents sternly disapproved. He joined Kurt Jooss's company and it was when rehearsing with them at the Wimbledon Theatre in London that he met Ashton, who urged him to get more classical training. He then went to Vera Volkova, who gave him half-price daily classes and a one hour private class each week. Royal Ballet dancers often came to Volkova's studio, and one day Wright was at the barre and turned around to find Fred standing next to him at the barre. Ashton asked how he was doing, and when told that Wright had no work, said, "Let's have a cup of tea and I'll see what I can do for you." The upshot of the cup of tea was that he found Wright work in William Chappell's revues, but adjured him to "think about your feet, and your arms are dreadful!" From Chappell's troupe, Wright went on to the Sadler's Wells Touring Ballet, where he danced Les Rendezvous and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, a ballet that impressed him so much that he revived it decades later.
He remembered Ashton's gift for giving simple but effective corrections, for example "Feel your ear when you turn your head".
Wright had very humorous recollections of the seven-month, 72-city tour of North America that the Sadler's Wells Ballet made in the late forties by train. From San Diego to San Antonio  there was so much bed-hopping between the railway compartments it was like the movie Some Like it Hot! He recounted how one day Margot Fonteyn asked Madam (de Valois) if she could leave the tour for a day. She had been invited to John Wayne's house.
Wright also shared a story about Svetlana Beriosova. "She always came across as so pure and innocent, but she wasn't! In Cranko's Beauty and the Beast, there is a kiss which transforms the beast back into a prince. In rehearsal Svetlana never kissed me, only air kisses. But on opening night, the moment for the kiss came. I was lying on my back and she leant over and kissed me..... it was such a kiss my knees were weak... what is known as a cold tongue sandwich!"
Wright moved to Stuttgart when John Cranko took over there in the early 60s and acted as ballet master, did some choreography, and staged his first Giselle. He then staged a Sleeping Beauty in Cologne [I think, or maybe Frankfurt], where he said the ballerinas had such ugly legs they couldn't possibly be dressed in tutus, so he had the designer create long shift-like dresses for them. Ashton, who was about to do his own Beauty, came to see this production. Later, Ashton's assistant contacted Wright to invite him to have lunch with Ashton in London. Wright had visions of a sumptuous meal at the Savoy, about 5 minutes walk from Covent Garden, which were quickly deflated when he was met by Michael Somes at the stage door and directed to the opera house canteen. Ashton persuaded him to abandon television, in which he was working at the time, and return to the ballet fold.
Iain Webb interjected at this point a story about Michael Somes, who was notoriously difficult to work with, that he had once made a dancer do the Bluebird solo three times in a row without a break. Webb thought the dancer was literally going to die of a heart attack right there.
What Peter Wright learned from Frederick Ashton:
1) absorb the music, then create dances not TO the music, but BECOME the music
2) contrast; even if the music is all on one level, create contrast to keep the audience involved.The contrast in traditional classical ballets between mime scenes and pas d'action is very important for this reason.
3) never compete with the music.
4) never be averse to taking steps from other people. Ashton used to say: all the steps are in Cecchetti, just make them your own.
5) never exaggerate

The talk wrapped up with Iain Webb recounting a story about Ashton, a notorious chain smoker. One day they were rehearsing on the stage of the Royal Opera House and as always a lit cigarette was in Ashton's hand. The opera house fire chief, in some consternation, came up and remonstrated, "Really, Sir Frederick, you shouldn't smoke." To which Ashton replied...
"Oh it's all right... I don't inhale!"

Someone made an allusion to Sir Peter Wright's "book". I don't know if he is working on his memoirs, but I certainly hope so!

The afternoon film was Sir Fred, a BBC documentary made shortly after the choreographer's death, in which those who had worked with him were interviewed.
Alexander Grant recounted how when Hans-Werner Henze was holed up in Ashton's house composing Ondine, Ashton would phone Grant every day and ask pleadingly "Has he produced anything that sounds like a melody or a tune?" and Grant would regretfully report, alas , no. Then one day Ashton's housekeeper told Grant she had been hearing beautiful pretty music coming out of Henze's room. Grant, incredulously, said, "Really? Pretty music?" but when he asked Henze about it, he replied that he had felt too tired to compose that morning and had been playing Mozart instead!

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