From England, With Love: A Royal, All-Ashton Program

We’re in the middle of the City Ballet and American Ballet Theater spring seasons, and although there’s a lot going on of interest, not much of it is taking place at Lincoln Center, unless you count the School of American Ballet’s annual workshop performance at Juilliard. As always, S.A.B. gave us a superb Balanchine staging by Suki Schorer-this year, Divertimento #15, whose central role was tossed off with amazing allegro technique and assurance by Megan Fairchild. I found 15-year-old Ashlee Knapp even more interesting; when she walked onstage to accept a pre-performance award, she looked like a typically awkward teenager, but when she danced, there was no awkwardness-only a potential artist.

The highlight of the workshop, though, was a new ballet by Melissa Barak, a 21-year-old member of City Ballet’s corps. Choreographers are born, not made, and they’re born all too rarely. On the basis of her first ballet before the public, Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor, we can see that this young woman commands the fundamentals: She responds to music appropriately but not slavishly, she has an easy flow of dance ideas, her dancers always seem to be in the right place without strain-she thinks spatially. The ballet uses an unusual combination of dancers: eight girls and four boys in the corps, and two girls as soloists (of course, the school has a preponderance of girls, but Ms. Barak has made a virtue of necessity). Being a baroque ballet in Balanchine’s world, Telemann Overture necessarily evokes his Concerto Barocco and Square Dance, yet it doesn’t imitate them, and though its vocabulary is restricted, it never seems constricted. In other words, this ballet is not just promising, it’s accomplished. Happily, Peter Martins has commissioned a ballet from her for the company. If her promise is realized, and if Christopher Wheeldon continues to develop, the creative bleakness at City Ballet may actually be drawing to a close.

But the main ballet event of the season recently took place at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.: a week of Britain’s Royal Ballet in an all-Ashton repertoire; alas, the company is skipping New York entirely on this tour. Frederick Ashton, one of the greatest of all choreographers, has suffered neglect on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, so the opportunity to see three of his masterpieces, plus several less important works, was a rare and golden one. There was much sentimental to-do about Anthony Dowell retiring as director after 15 years. Although he’s been sharply criticized for the condition of the company, now that he’s leaving, and with the not-very-highly-regarded Ross Stretton arriving from Australia to replace him, we had tributes galore, plus a “surprise” appearance by the 58-year-old Mr. Dowell himself (with his great partner, 62-year-old Antoinette Sibley) in Les Soupirs, a trifle Ashton concocted for them in 1980. Onetime lovers meet unexpectedly at a park bench. They remember, they regret, they part. She was in heeled shoes, not on pointe; he has lost his spring. But both of them retain their beautiful carriage and their emotional conviction. The audience dutifully responded.

We were also served up another duet made for the Dowell-Sibley partnership, the Thaïs pas de deux. The guy-in this case, hunky Adam Cooper of the all-male Swan Lake and Billy Elliot-stands in a daze and a scoop neckline while his muse (Leanne Benjamin) bourrées in beneath a veil. The veil is shed, she does various things with and to him culminating in a kiss, the veil is back on, and she bourrées off. There was no magic, no erotic charge, between these two; it’s hard to believe this was ever a convincing piece.

Equally corny and much longer is the famous Marguerite and Armand, which Ashton made in 1960 for Fonteyn and Nureyev. This is a flashback ballet-the Lady of the Camellias is dying on a sofa, remembering. It took Garbo to turn Camille into something wonderful, and it took Fonteyn and Nureyev to do the same for this creaky vehicle. The ballet has been revived for the famous (in some circles, infamous) Sylvie Guillem. She is many things-athletic, energetic, ambitious, intense. What she isn’t is moving. And her partner, Nicolas Le Riche, is certainly not Nureyev. Without performers of genius, Marguerite and Armand is just shallow kitsch.

The meat of the Royal season was three major works. Les Rendezvous, from 1933, is one of Ashton’s great charmers. It begins with a bang-the girls of the corps hurling themselves onstage from the wings in big jetés-and it never lets up. The Ashton trademarks are all there: the detailed port de bras, the stabbing footwork, the enchanting flicks of the wrist, the lovely open lifts. For decades Les Rendezvous was performed in a garden setting, and the girls wore conventionally pretty garden-party get-up. Now we have an abstract sky with a gigantic moon that changes color from orange to blue to yellow, sketchy cut-out pine trees (Matisse on a bad day), and the girls’ dresses splotched with big pastel polka dots. The human scale so quintessential to Ashton’s work is dissipated by the set, and the dancing is blurred by the excesses of the costuming. Why can’t artistic directors leave well enough alone?

Luckily, no one has dreamed of rethinking Symphonic Variations, Ashton’s “signature” ballet. Made in 1946, Symphonics is a distillation of everything Ashton felt about pure classical ballet. Although the dance’s demands on its three couples are fiendishly difficult-everything exposed, and with no moments of rest offstage-the feeling is always one of calm, focus, simplicity. Because of its hallowed place in British dance, there’s a danger (and this is just as true of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco in America) that it will be performed over-solemnly. The first cast in Washington did it credit with its three strong ballerinas-Sarah Wildor, Tamara Rojo and, in the Fonteyn role, the very young Alina Cojocaru (she’s just turned 20). She may have been a touch subdued, but this girl has everything-she’s beautiful, exquisitely proportioned, modest, glowing, with an abundant musicality and an expansive joy to her movement. A few weeks ago in London I saw her in what was only her second Giselle, and immediately it was clear why she’s become a principal-and a star-overnight. How Ashton would have adored her!

The great happiness of the Royal season, came from the four performances of Ashton’s most beloved and richest creation, his version of the 1789 La Fille Mal Gardée. The plot is standard 18th century-young Colas and Lise in love, thwarted by a parent’s ambitions, then united. In other versions of the ballet, like the one Baryshnikov and Makarova and Kirkland used to struggle to animate at A.B.T., the plot is a bore. But there isn’t a boring moment in Ashton’s two acts from the instant the curtain goes up and dawn is heralded by the hilarious dance for a cockerel and his four hens. (Real roosters and hens, with their strut, their angularities, their fluster, would dance this way if only they could dance.) Although formally set in France, Fille is from start to finish a rapturous-and closely observed-evocation of the English bucolic life Ashton so loved.

Lise and Colas must be the most wholesomely and tenderly sexy couple in ballet; they never stop kissing. (When Ethan Steifel, on loan from A.B.T., peeked up Sarah Wildor’s skirt during the maypole dance, he broke the spell of innocence; isn’t he getting a little old to keep parading his naughtiness?) The lovers’ scenes deepen from light-hearted flirtation through the famous intricate ribbon dance to their last-act triumphant bridal pas de deux. (They’ve inadvertently been locked in Lise’s bedroom together, and it’s clear what kind of triumph they’ve been having. And how Ashton loves their love!) The comic characters, too, are consummate creations. The Widow Simone, in her lovable drag, isn’t a mere plot convention: She cherishes her daughter even as she tries to discipline her and, best of all, she’s always ready to dance-her exuberant clog dance is one of the glories of the ballet. Alain, the rich pretender to Lise’s hand, is a true zany-a would-be Marx Brother who’s another dancing fool. Though his steps parody the ballet’s radiant classicism, they’re goofy, not ugly, so Alain is lovable, too.

The riches of Ashton’s Fille are inexhaustible. The talent of the current Royal company isn’t. Apart from Alina Cojocaru, no one really stands out, and the famous Royal Ballet style is in general a thing of the past. But despite unevenness of casting and style, it was wonderful to have this Fille back with us. The good news is that A.B.T. is taking it into the repertory next year. The mystery is why, given the frantic scramble for repertory all over the world, companies aren’t grabbing Ashton’s Les Patineurs, Two Pigeons, The Dream, Monotones, Symphonic Variations, Les Rendezvous. Their day is bound to come.