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June 10, 2010 3:00 am

A singular English import

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Frederick Ashton's particular genius is not easily assimilated into New York's ballet scene. New Yorkers expect race horses - limbs splayed, space devoured. Ashton offers show horses, the dancers moving up and down, all head and jittery feet. His heart is too warm to make ours ache the way Balanchine can. And though Ashton seems no more European than Jerome Robbins - no angst themes or chiaroscuro lighting - he doesn't compensate for his lack of suavity with streetwise cool: the ballets do not point outward to the world but inward to ballet and its pagan-pastoral past. Even Ashton's fondness for imperial Russian style, with which we are also in love, does him no favours. In his hands, it becomes neither imperial nor Russian but a gently parodic version of ballet itself.

Nevertheless, and happily, American Ballet Theatre has expanded its Ashton offerings beyond Sylvia and The Dream , in which the glorious storytelling and brilliant characterisations mitigate the foreignness of the style.

The 1956 Birthday Offering distils The Sleeping Beauty down to its fairy variations. Isabella Boylston, for example, is the Carmen fairy - her legs stabbing the ground and slicing through the air. Stella Abrera moves with the Lilac Fairy's pillowy softness, swinging a leg as if chiming a bell. All seven ballerinas halo their heads in their arms with such a sweetly self-conscious air that they momentarily turn into ballerina dolls.

For the 1971 Thaïs pas de deux, Ashton kaleidoscopes the various incarnations of La Bayadère 's Nikiya - from full-blooded temple dancer to vengeful ghost. Even after removing her veil, Diana Vishneva averts her gaze as if she were lost from this world. But her exposed neck suggests that the other world is her willing body.

On Tuesday the audience responded tepidly to these plotless works. They might have been more enthusiastic if The Dream , Ashton's 1964 take on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream , had come first. Besides the broad humour - farcical gestures Mickey-Moused to the music - there is the tender love duet after the long lovers' quarrel in which David Hallberg's wizardly Oberon renders Gillian Murphy's girlish Titania boneless with renewed desire.

"I did that," Herman Cornejo's Puck signs as king and queen retreat to their bower. The audience - entranced by his boundless jumps, his numberless pirouettes, and the clown, satyr and sprite that combine in him - roared its assent.

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