This summer’s Lincoln Center Festival kicked off with a glorious mini-festival honoring the centenary of Frederick Ashton, the choreographer who gave British ballet, well, its Britishness. An exact contemporary of Balanchine’s, Ashton kept faith with classical tradition just the way Balanchine did: by steeping himself in it even while he was transposing it to a new key. The artists’ most characteristic works are very different—Balanchine’s angular, slashing, high-speed choreography is worlds away from Ashton’s refinement, dignity, and love of portraiture—but together these two visionaries spent the twentieth century hoisting ballet from the past to the future.
Ashton’s home and greatest instrument for 50 years was the Royal Ballet, but in recent decades much of his repertoire has been falling into disrepair while the Royal moves toward a more generically European style and outlook. The company is still powerfully associated with Ashton and took pride of place at the festival, but judging from these performances it seems clear that the heart and soul of his legacy was best represented by another company: the Birmingham Royal Ballet, formerly the Royal’s secondary organization, which presented some of the series’ most fascinating and challenging works.
A prime example was Enigma Variations (1968), set to Edward Elgar’s 1898 composition of the same name. These portraits in music of Elgar’s wife and friends are like paintings that dance: fresh and vivid on the outside, wondrously subtle as you gaze deeper and deeper. It’s definitive Ashton, and the Birmingham Royal brings passion and reverence to every inch. Elgar himself (Joseph Cipolla) is a stern, remote presence at the center of the ballet; the other characters come and go in quick, brilliant sketches that capture relationships as well as personalities. Elgar’s wife (Silvia Jimenez) softens him whenever she approaches, but their duets are so reserved—once he lifts her slowly, just inches from the floor, while she remains proud and upright—that a painful mystery seems to be trapped inside their love. Good taste broods over everything in this ballet, including the design and the lighting, and in the best British tradition, art takes on the task of expressing what manners cannot.
“The Royal Ballet no longer represents the heart of Ashton’s legacy; Birmingham Royal does.”
By contrast, Dante Sonata (1940) is such a strange beast of a ballet that arguably it’s not even performable any longer, yet the Birmingham Royal is tending it with impressive care. Lurid and portentous, this allegorical clash between the forces of good and evil—danced barefoot in an ardently modern style inspired by Isadora Duncan—has the nerve to end in a draw. If the outsize emotions hurled across the stage now seem out of date, it’s partly because their context is so grim and readable: The horror of World War II seeps through the ballet like mist from dry ice. This piece would have resounded in a great, ominous drumroll if we’d seen it on September 12, 2001.
Among the other highlights of the festival were Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in a beautifully maintained version of A Wedding Bouquet (1937), a delirious homage to the upper classes set to music by Lord Berners and with a text by Gertrude Stein, and Tokyo’s K-Ballet Company in Rhapsody (1980), an all-bravura showpiece created for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier. Company founder Tetsuya Kumakawa handled the wild-man solos capably, but Viviana Durante was even more exciting—fast and flirtatious, the essence of glamour. Her arms caressed the space around her, her hands had the charm of small birds, and she bestowed her contented smile everywhere.
These three companies shared the first half of the Ashton celebration: The second half was given over to the Royal Ballet, which made poor use of the honor. The dancing was uneven, the choice of ballets was disappointing, and we were even served one of those old-fashioned platters of assorted pas de deux. Decades ago, touring companies used to truck around the provinces with Great Moments From Our Repertoire: I guess the Royal still does. The duets were performed splendidly by some of the company’s best dancers, but excerpting Ashton does him a disservice. To see only a few minutes of such mysterious, intense works as Ondine or Thais made them seem like oddities, not masterpieces.
Of the three works shown in full, Cinderella came off best, thanks to its longtime scene-stealers, the Ugly Sisters. Played in high-spirited drag by Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep, they were the only characters in the performance showing any personality whatever. Tamara Rojo danced with her broom cheerfully enough, but as soon as the prince (Inãki Urlezaga) came into her life, she froze up and never recovered.
A more puzzling work, in fact an inscrutable work, was Scènes de Ballet, created in 1948 and said to be a personal favorite of Ashton’s. Built on a grid of complex choreographic devices, today it looks weirdly like a fashion shoot—lots of self-conscious posing in a set that suggests a Roman ruin. This is a ballet that would have benefited from a good program note. And finally—oy—Marguerite and Armand, made in 1963 for the Royal’s royalty, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and revived here with Sylvie Guillem and Massimo Murru. Based on La Dame aux Camellias, it’s a histrionic tale of love and coughing fits that desperately needs its legendary original couple.
Is great art necessarily timeless? Can a style fade but be restored to relevance? Are Balanchine’s innovations more resilient than Ashton’s, or just more overtly contemporary? Pondering these questions after the Ashton festival, I saw Heisei Nakamura-za, a Kabuki theater company presenting an art form 400 years old. Nakamura Kankuro V and his troupe performed in a replica of a traditional Kabuki theater, assembled in Damrosch Park, while translation and commentary were offered via headsets. It’s foreign, it’s cumbersome, it’s not remotely “relevant,” but the audience was transfixed instantly. With faces painted like masks, and speech and movements entirely stylized, these actors blazed through the distance imposed by time and culture and went straight to the imagination—the place where all questions disappear.