26 Jun 2024

Royal Ballet Ashton Celebrated bill of short works and Rhapsody

Bruce Marriott, with thoughts on his not-so-great start to celebrating the work of the Royal Ballet Founder Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton…

Romany Pajdak in Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. © @FoteiniPhotoRomany Pajdak in Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. © @FoteiniPhoto

Royal Ballet
Ashton Celebrated: (The Dream), Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, The Walk to the Paradise Garden, Hamlet and Ophelia, Rhapsody
London, Royal Opera House
22 June 2024

The ballet world is celebrating Frederick Ashton: for many, it’s about time. It’s kicked off with two Royal Ballet (RB) main stage bills and a visit to the Royal Opera House (ROH) by Florida’s Sarasota Ballet, strangely the company now more associated with dancing Ashton works than any other. It’s the start of Ashton Worldwide 2024-2028, only announced last month by the Ashton Foundation, a grand scheme to toast the great choreographer around the globe.

Ashton was the Founder Choreographer of the Royal Ballet/Birmingham Royal Ballet, and many die-hard fans feel that the companies rarely do enough of his work. They tend to look enviously at New York City Ballet, which consciously dances many works by George Balanchine (their founding choreographer and artistic director) and keeps them fresh, vibrantly alive, and in the public imagination. But there are very different traditions at work here and the longer Ashton works, like Cinderella and La Fille mal gardée, are regularly revived. It’s the shorter Ashton works that get much less exposure and that’s what London has been unpacking this month.

Personally, I’ve not had a great start to toasting Frederick Ashton’s choreographic legacy - if in the scheme of dance life I’ve not been too worried about it. I forgot about booking, and by the time I remembered, all the Sarasota Ballet performances in the smaller downstairs ROH Linbury Theatre were sold out. So last Saturday was my first Ashton show - seeing the Royal Ballet perform his work on the main stage. Sadly, transport problems meant we were 3 minutes late for the show, but house management will always look to sort out something - if only seeing the show on a large video screen until the first interval.

But it sounded like we had struck lucky when we were told we were being put in the Royal Box. Regulars will know the Royals don’t normally use the box because it’s near the stage, so the views are not stunning, but we like the sides, so off we tramped. Sadly, there were already four people in the box, occupying the front seats, and in the pitch darkness, trying to navigate/move high stools, which enable you to see over the front row, proved all too difficult, with the result we saw virtually nothing. Really exasperating. The problem is that a group of people need to occupy the box while the lights are up, and everybody can see that you all need to hutch up and be close for all to get any view - it’s not something you can achieve in the dark, and when the front are all ensconced and also occupying more space than strictly needed. For another time, 1) don’t try to put more than 4 or 5 people in the Royal Box (when the show is running), 2) if you are offered it, then don’t accept unless it is empty! We certainly would have been better off seeing the show on video feed - or just having a quiet drink in the bar. No rancour with ROH - we were late and folks did what they thought was for the best. (And sorry for this seating diversion).

So, no review here of Natalia Osipova and William Bracewell in The Dream. But to be honest, seeing just an occasional glimpse of it confirms a feeling of how old and rather twee it looks. The David Walker designs have not worn well, and those for Oberon are particularly camp. But I know it’s much loved, as is the music and singing, and I regret missing the steps this time.

The afternoon’s highlight was Romany Pajdak in Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, with the National Dance Awards-nominated Kate Shipway on piano. Ashton first clapped eyes on Duncan when he was a teenager, and it clearly left him somewhat spellbound. I have to say the womanly skipping and frolicking of Pajdak has me somewhat spellbound, too. It feels like Duncan/Pajdak exists in their own world, dancing with a private abandon rather than making a formal performance and aware of us out front. Drawn in, you want the closing rose petal play and music to go on way longer. And it’s a shame it didn’t, for the other two short ballets in this middle section of the show aren’t especially helpful to the Ashton cause.

The Walk To The Paradise Garden was originally created on David Wall and Merle Park for a gala in 1972 but feels way older, somewhat overwrought, melodramatic and not a little perplexing with the introduction of a death character. Danced by Sarasota Ballet’s Jennifer Hackbarth, Ricardo Rhodes and Daniel Pratt, it has the narrative of a socially outcast couple both united in their deep love and their death by drowning. It features a surprising and ungainly upside-down lift and a lot of hide and seek as the dancers disappear and reappear (effortfully) from under death’s humungous cape. Jann Parry reviewed this in 2021, during the Covid lockdown, as a streamed Sarasota performance and gives much more detail. Ultimately, I agree with her conclusion: Without the context of a bravura gala, the piece feels preposterous.”

Another gala piece making a questionable comeback was Hamlet and Ophelia, originally from 1977 and created for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Again, it feels rather overwrought to some emotional Liszt as Cesar Corrales’ Hamlet works through his confused feelings towards Sarah Lamb’s ill-treated Ophelia. This recreation was first shown in 2021 at the Ashton Rediscovered: Past, Present and Future event put on by RB and the Frederick Ashton Foundation in the ROH Linbury Theatre. Again, Jann Parry covered Hamlet (and much else) in significant detail, which is well worth reading. And again, I think Jann’s summing up says much about the piece’s worth: … it’s more of an Ashtonian pastiche for a famous couple than a lost’ treasure by an old master.”

With Paradise Garden and Hamlet now shown on the main stage and hopefully recorded for posterity, they can now be parked and more significant Ashton work tackled or just spend money growing new choreographers instead - that would be a far better use of the money and resources involved.

After the second interval came the much better-known Rhapsody, now having racked up over 110 performances since it was first made for the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980. So, yet another piece of Ashton built for a star, and putting non-stars in to bat can just remind you that you are missing something. That said, it’s a couple in the lead (Lesley Collier was Baryshnikov’s original partner) and six pairs of soloists, all of whom can help elevate Rhapsody into a gloriously bravura confection.

The Rhapsody reality on Saturday afternoon was better than I imagined, with a beaming Mayara Magri stealing the show with her musicality, swift feet, pliant torso, and infectious joie de vivre. And the supporting cast of couples looked particularly well coached in the demanding choreography, with even the six men getting up in the air in unison - too often rarely the case at the Royal and very much appreciated. The retro Ashton set design works well if I am in the minority in much preferring the punchy and bold Patrick Caulfield redesigns from 1995. First Soloist Luca Acri had the unenviable/enviable central Baryshnikov role - enviable because it’s such an opportunity to do show stopping work, and unenviable because few can do the steps full justice. And it proved a personal triumph for him in going for it and achieving the difficult movement at a base level. But in all honesty, it was a role I don’t think he should have been cast in. But no matter, the happy show-off nature of Rhapsody and the overall casting, coupled with Rachmaninov’s pushily assertive Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, delivered a pretty cheerful conclusion to an uneven afternoon.