For its annual spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, American Ballet Theatre – bless it! – focused on the uses of enchantment. The company has added to its repertoire two key works from the sixties by the British choreographer Frederick Ashton, La Fille Mal Gardée and The Dream, in productions fine enough to guarantee pleasure to veteran viewers and the uninitiated alike.
Each of these ballets creates an imaginative world that is utterly absorbing, with dance (and mime, that now-neglected art) delineating a wide range of character and a kaleidoscope of moods – all set in a storybook landscape. Both propose an idea from which we’ve tragically become alienated: that life’s inevitable troubles can be resolved and happiness grasped, every soul rewarded according to its particular needs. In exquisitely calibrated choreography, as full of intelligence as it is of grace, both offer visions of the sublimity that can be achieved through perfect (and even imperfect) love.
These ballets are idylls, of course. La Fille Mal Gardée, based on a work that dates back to the late eighteenth century, is a pastoral in which a delectable country maiden outwits her mother’s plan to marry her off to a rich landowner’s doltish son and is united with the young man of her heart, who possesses every charm but wealth. The ballet is drenched in sunlight, subject to fleeting thunderstorms, and redolent of newly cut hay and just-risen cream. It offers the purest lyric dancing imaginable, offset and enriched by folk dance, borrowings from the music hall, dance en travesti, and a series of lovely, ingenious feats with lengths of ribbon that weave through the ballet as a metaphor for the ties that bind.
ABT’s production – shaped by a British contingent of Ashton experts led by Alexander Grant – is very good. The dancers seem to have grasped the nature of the style they’re aiming for and now need only the further refining that comes through thoughtful practice. As the lovers, Ashley Tuttle and Ethan Stiefel – the first of four casts – most recalled the qualities traditionally associated with their roles: purity of execution, musicality, and understated charm. Nina Ananiashvili and Carlos Acosta (whose arrival at ABT has caused a sensation) gave the ballet an unnecessary but compelling infusion of big-star boldness. The role of the hapless suitor was well taken, in turn, by Joaquin De Luz, Carlos Lopez, and Herman Cornejo, though none of them quite came up to the endearing (and technically brilliant) rendition of idiocy and clumsiness achieved by Grant, who originated the role. Guillaume Graffin was the best of the Mamas – realizing an echt-Ashtonian portrait of affectionately observed human foibles. Many fans, though, favored Kirk Peterson’s interpretation, while Victor Barbee seemed to be attempting a darker, more naturalistic interpretation. The fact that ABT could deliver several apt yet distinct readings of a character part, in a period inclined to ignore everything but bravura virtuosity, is in itself heartening.
The Dream posed even more of a challenge to ABT than Fille. Ashton’s evocation in dance of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream creates a beguiling web of love’s quarrels and reconciliations in a magical forest where the fairy tribe mingles with more pedestrian folk. It is particularly difficult to do well because of the nature of the movement the choreographer invented for the creatures of fantasy. Ashton’s customary mode – which involves a tricky-to-achieve blend of precision, lightness, and fluency – is here inflected with baroque twistings and turnings. This body language, of course, reflects the convolutions of the plot; it may also spring from the willful character of Titania, bent on having her own way and then succumbing, seduced by the sheer lushness of love, to Oberon’s mastery.
Staged by Anthony Dowell, the sublime danseur noble who originated the role of Oberon, ABT’s production, like that of Fille, focuses on a clear image of the ballet as it came from Ashton’s hands. It looks as if it will be some time before the dancers can execute their material with ease. But surely there is no goal more worthy of the company’s attention than improving upon the fine start it has made with its Ashton acquisitions – not merely for artistic reasons but for the bottom-line concerns that nowadays rule the arts. These dances purvey delight, which is a marketable commodity.
American Ballet Theatre
Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée and The Dream, at the Metropolitan Opera House.