A Rare Orgy of Ashton Lets Us Share the Love

The recent two-week Frederick Ashton celebration at the Met, in honor of his 100th birthday, has been thrilling, moving, illuminating, yet in some ways disappointing. We in America have been on a thin diet of Ashton for many years (even his own company, the Royal Ballet, has been on strict rations). Granted that dancing Ashton requires a certain specific training, there’s still no good reason why companies around the world, so desperate for distinguished repertory, should shy away from the work of the man who is almost universally regarded as the second (with Balanchine) of the 20th century’s two greatest choreographers. Several years ago, A.B.T. woke up and gave us a few performances of Les Patineurs and Symphonic Variations and, for two consecutive years (and to great acclaim), La Fille Mal Gardée and The Dream , two of Ashton’s greatest achievements. A Royal Ballet visit to the Kennedy Center in 2001 was an all-Ashton event: Fille (a joy, as always); the early and entrancing Les Rendezvous , scuttled by a hideous new production; Symphonic Variations ; some pas de deux; and-to pull in the crowd-Sylvie Guillem in Marguerite and Armand , the famous, or notorious, pièce de partnership that in 1963 Ashton concocted for Fonteyn and Nureyev and which was shelved, one had hoped permanently, after they retired.

How appropriate-and how welcome-has been Lincoln Center Festival’s decision to celebrate Ashton so elaborately and generously: four companies sharing the honors, and several major works back in town after an absence of far too many years. But do we need the artificial boost of an anniversary to remind us of this great artist?

The highlights of the season were the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s recensions of Enigma Variations and The Two Pigeons and the Royal’s Scènes de Ballet and Cinderella . But let’s dispose of the lowlights first, the lowest of which was the K-Ballet (of Tokyo) doing Rhapsody , a meretricious trifle Ashton made for Baryshnikov in 1980. More interesting from an historical point of view was Birmingham’s version of the wartime Dante Sonata , an overwrought work in bare feet and flowing tresses set to some overexcited Liszt: The Children of Light battle the Children of Darkness. (It comes out a tie, but not before someone has been crucified.) This work struck me as wholly risible the only previous time it has been seen in America, during the first Sadler’s Wells season in 1949-50, and I had hoped that either I or it had matured since then. But, no.

Of a different order of disappointment was the contribution of the Joffrey Ballet, which decades ago had a strong Ashton wing. The years have not been kind to the Joffrey, much as some loyalists would like to think otherwise. I found their Patineurs studied and joyless, its Boy in Blue, Masayoshi Onuki, too young, too spindly and too uncentered. Remember Baryshnikov? Bujones? The early Wedding Bouquet , with its oddly charming text by Gertrude Stein and its highly uncharming narration by Christian Holder, is very much a period piece: a rompy 19th-century wedding in the French countryside. The “slightly demented” Julia, a castoff of the “rakish” bridegroom, makes as much trouble as she can, while her friend Josephine gets tipsier and tipsier. Everyone rushes about, there are amusing moments, but all in all it comes across today as tiring, even tiresome. An Ashton masterpiece, Monotones I and II -each of its two plotless sections featuring only three dancers-is set to orchestrated piano pieces by Satie, and in its calm, compressed and mysterious way manages to suggest the workings of the universe. The company approached Monotones with due solemnity, but didn’t do it full justice. I’m afraid the Joffrey is an idea whose time is gone.

The Birmingham Dante Sonata may have been a misfire, but their double bill of Enigma Variations and The Two Pigeons was a complete triumph. Enigma , created in 1968, is-like Wedding Bouquet and A Month in the Country -a company ballet, a story populated by a large group of individualized characters. In this case, they are Edward Elgar, the composer of the Variations , his wife, and the friends, associates and locals who drift in and out of their garden during a period of stress: Elgar is waiting for word from a great European conductor who either will or won’t choose to premiere the very music we are listening to. The material of the ballet is mostly everyday-a girl in a hammock and her suitor; an eccentric visitor on a tricycle-yet Ashton imbues everything with his inexhaustibly rich humanity. There are not many moments in recent ballet as moving as the famous “Nimrod” variation in which, in the fading light, Elgar, his wife and his close companion A. J. Jaeger explore the essence and ambiguities of love and friendship. We are in Liebeslieder Waltzer country here-the heart lifted and transfixed with joy and pain. Joseph Cipolla and Silvia Jimenez as Elgar and his wife displayed the maturity and suppressed emotion the ballet requires; the entire company rose to the occasion. One shared in their relief and pleasure when the fatal telegram arrived-with good news!

As for Two Pigeons , with its delectable (and very danceable) André Messager score and its two real pigeons, how not to love it? The Young Man is an artist; the Young Girl is his model and his mistress. We’re in their studio-in Paris, of course. She fidgets while posing; he’s annoyed. Some Gypsies drop in, they whirl and twirl, and our boy falls for the Gypsy Girl-or at least for Adventure. Off he goes to their encampment, leaving his girl behind, in tears. Yes, there’s too much Gypsy dancing in the second act-almost any amount of Gypsy dancing is too much-and it’s more or less generic. But you’re not supposed to take it seriously-until the hero is suddenly betrayed, cast off by his seductress and roughed up by those Romany swaggerers. Humiliated, he crawls home-the Prodigal Pigeon-where the Girl is waiting for him and forgives him, their reconciliation the occasion for one of Ashton’s most ecstatic love duets. (How beautiful they all are, and how different-this one so touching; the one in The Dream so clearly ushering Titania and Oberon to bed; the one in Fille so ecstatic and big-hearted.) If there were any dry eyes in the Met when, at the end, the two pigeons flew back in and perched on the chair where boy and girl were entwined, mine were not among them. A sentimental valentine? Maybe. But what a corrective to the Children of Darkness!

The Two Pigeons was made in 1961 on Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, and to my knowledge no one has ever matched them in it. Even so, Robert Parker as the artist, all impatient and ardent youth, and Molly Smolen as a smoldering Gypsy Girl made particularly strong impressions. In the first performance, one of the pigeons made an unscripted appearance, but no harm was done.

Apart from the dreaded Marguerite and Armand -with the athletic dominatrix Guillem unable to convey any feeling at all as the dying courtesan, though she gave good cough-the Royal Ballet made a strong showing throughout the Festival’s second week. Because it’s been gone from New York for so long, we’re unfamiliar with the company, except for a few of the principals. Darcey Bussell, for years a favorite, performed two pas de deux-beautiful as ever, holding her own technically, always pleasing, but to me more a gracious presence than an interesting dancer: She always reminds me of minor royalty acknowledging her subjects. The great pleasure of the season came from Alina Cojocaru, the ravishingly lovely girl from Romania via Kiev who became an instant star in London several years ago. She’s the great hope of classical ballet today-exquisite, perfectly proportioned, technically impeccable, lovable, modest, brimming over with a pure love of dancing. She brought a light, happy virtuosity to Ashton’s showoffy Voices of Spring pas de deux; she caught much of the elegant, edgy musicality of his most important Stravinsky piece, Scènes de Ballet ; and-most important-she found a way to animate the title role in his superb three-act version of Cinderella , the first full-evening ballet ever created in England. (It was made in 1948 for Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer.)

The singularity of this Cinderella is that its genius is invested less in the romantic action than in the magnificent architectural designs with which Ashton structured the big scenes, and with the comic play of the two stepsisters, who dominate so much of the proceedings. These sisters were danced for decades by Ashton himself and England’s leading dramatic dancer, Robert Helpmann, who made them into silly, bickering, man-crazy zanies, far from malevolent, just ridiculous and even touching in their outrageous drag. No one else onstage could compete with them, and the material for Cinderella herself-a lot of waltzing around with a broom and dreaming of her late mother-seemed weak in comparison. The Prince is even more of a complete zero-on top of everything else, he has a dynamic Jester to upstage him. The Fairy Godmother, the Four Seasons whom she introduces to Cinderella with a series of enchanting variations, their cavaliers, the 12 Stars (or Hours) for whom Ashton created thrilling group passages, even the be-robed and bewigged courtiers are more consistently gripping than the central couple, whose climactic Act II ballroom duet is undermined by the stridencies of the score-Prokofiev’s music here at odds with the action.

Cojocaru’s shining radiance triumphed over the thinness of the material. The tribulations of Cinderella’s situation, not all that severe to begin with, hardly penetrate her happy nature and goodness. Cojocaru’s unforced technique-those glittering yet easy piqué turns, those 180-degree arabesque penchées that never look forced or acrobatic, just a natural expression of her generosity of spirit-seems always a reflection of her inner self. She’s completely lovable, exactly the way you want Cinderella to be. And like her characterization, her musicality is fresh and simple rather than subtle and witty. Because she and her Danish partner, the elegant and spirited Johan Kobborg, are so felicitously matched, such a glowing pair, they held the audience enraptured, at least partly reclaiming Cinderella for Cinderella.

There were two other Cinderellas: the nuanced and intelligent but uncharismatic Leanne Benjamin and the very fine Tamara Rojo, who is the Royal’s only legitimate young rival to Cojocaru. Rojo is a strong and convincing classicist, and in the ballroom scene she was very beautiful, with her lovely body and legs and her purity of approach. But she was not only joyless, she was affectless-more like a girl in a vision scene, disembodied, than a girl who has been magically transported to a palace ball and has fallen in love. But then who could blame her, given the clunkiness of Iñaka Urlezaga, her stolid Prince?

The chief pair of sisters were two Royal favorites of the past, Anthony Dowell and the onetime dynamo character dancer Wayne Sleep. They went all the way-and then some. Lots of pratfalls and knockabout pranks, but sly sweetness was sacrificed to crass farce. The ravishing solos for the four Seasons, with their soft port de bras and surprising lunges and shifts, were so wonderful to watch that you could forgive the inconsistent level of performance. And the new production, though more than a touch glitzy, didn’t get in the way. Cinderella emerged a big winner.

But the biggest winner, of course, was Ashton himself. Though we see him so intermittently in America, we begin to think we understand him. There is the love of music, the endless felicity of invention, the signature steps and style. But most of all, I think, we love his love of love. Balanchine told us that ballet was woman; Ashton tells us that ballet is woman and man, in intimacy, passion, playfulness, sensuality. There must be more kisses in Fille Mal Gardée and The Two Pigeons than in all of Balanchine put together, because what moves Ashton-and us-is love fulfilled. Which is why, in this post-ironic, postmodern world, we need him more than ever.