Posted on March 31, 2017
This month is a piece of self-indulgence. I’ve been working on Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de ballet for Sarasota Ballet, and the work has become a bit of a “personal helicon”, to reference Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Dancers are always reminded of the evanescent nature of our job: once a performance is over, you have little left to hold on to. So I suppose this small recording of my thoughts and feelings towards this 1948 ballet is an effort to keep it in my mind for just a little while longer.
Why did Scènes de ballet capture my imagination? The inky palette of the designs by André Beaurepaire is intoxicating, offset dramatically by an incisive flash of canary yellow and smoky lavender. In her book, Secret Muses: The life of Frederick Ashton, Julie Kavanagh mentions how Igor Stravinsky’s score – composed four years earlier than Ashton’s ballet – was likened to “a copy of Vogue”. Indeed, the costumes make a dancer feel as if they are etched on to a fashion plate from a bygone era. The intriguing archway that anchors the dance action nods towards visual artists such as Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso, both men having a thrillingly new way to look at the world. As I danced in front of it, I felt like the ballet was a way of making cubism physical.
I know this is an unusual comment because we wouldn’t usually pair bucolic, swooping, bending Ashton with fragmented cubism, but I mean to assert the transformative power of seeing the world on a different plane. Ashton became interested in geometry and Euclid’s theorems during World War Two, and he used these ideas to set himself choreographic problems to solve whilst making Scènes de ballet. In plumbing pure abstraction, Ashton stretches his use of classical steps, an effort to match Stravinsky’s constantly changing dynamics.
What is truly impressive is how the ballet distils the essence of classicism. Clement Crisp and Peter Brinson succinctly wrote that Scènes de ballet is “a study in the formulae of classic dance”. There are references to Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty: a riff on the Rose Adagio appears at the ballet’s heart, and earlier, a line of 12 women dance a direct quotation from Petipa’s masterpiece. Some critics identify these women as alluding to the 12 months of the year – the four men representing the seasons. It quietly aligns Scènes de ballet to Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, though all reference to the seasons in both ballets were either edited out, or only implicit, intended or otherwise.
Scènes de ballet stands alone in my mind from other Ashton ballets in how it feels on your body. For a male dancer, it teaches you how to hold yourself as a classical danseur, but from a time that has now been swept away. Demanding allegro steps and changes of direction must be carried off with an elegant air, Ashton saying he felt Scènes de ballet had “moments… of poetry and real beauty… on a grand scale and a certain mystery and elegance and an aristocratic aura.”
This sense of regal distance has been identified by Geraldine Morris, saying that the ballet makes no effort to charm you. Much of this view comes from Stravinsky’s score, having none of the lyrical warmth present in the music for other plotless Ashton works like Monotones or Symphonic Variations. For me, Ashton’s ballets are usually fragrant and aromatic, suffused with a specific time or place. Scènes de ballet has something eternal about it.
It’s a marvellous work for the corps de ballet, the intention being that it could be seen from any angle and offer a different, but equally beguiling dance. The complex patterns and the ingenious ways groups dissolve and reappear made me think of kaleidoscopes: wonderful shafts of colour and light suddenly coming into focus. The way in which Ashton’s choreography makes use of the entire body is pivotal for this effect: every elbow and eyelash must be aligned. There’s a glorious moment when the 12 women should hold a balance in arabesque for one count; it’s breathtaking when it works because a sudden moment of stillness on stage shatters the audience’s passive spectating.
Just as in Euclid, group formations contain diamonds, star shapes and squares within circles. Indeed, this is how your body feels holding some of the ballet’s poses – Ashtonian softness on top, scaffolded from underneath by the lustrous rigour of the classical rules of technique. Dancing Scènes de ballet felt like making sense of all my training.
I loved Scènes de ballet as an audience member before I got to dance it this year, and my perception of the ballet has only deepened. There’s a collection of post-war works, including Symphonic Variations and George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, that I would label as some of the greatest examples of human dance in existence. The subject of these ballets is dance, speaking about it in ways both primitive and sophisticated, full of allusions to human culture across the ages, but not dependent on them. Scènes de ballet represents a whole way of life now past, but present in some way within the architecture of the ballet so that we can still converse with it today. Deborah Bull commented that she was taught Scènes de Ballet by colleagues collectively singing the score, a community passing down a tradition. It made me think of dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s recent comment in the New York Times on March 3, 2017, that the classics are “a graduation process… younger dancers will learn style and ascend through the ranks”. Scènes de ballet is Ashton’s own personal touchstone.
Photographs by Frank Atura