Posted on December 19, 2008
Performances of Frederick Ashton’s ballets are few and far between these days – though in New York we do have Sylvia to look forward to in American Ballet Theatre’s summer season – so when I heard that the Sarasota Ballet was bringing back The Two Pigeons, which it first presented a year ago, together with Les Patineurs, which has also become a rarity, I decided a trip to Florida was called for. It proved to be well worthwhile. Iain Webb, who became artistic director of the company 17 months ago, has ambitious plans, coupled with a sense of history. Not only has he presented ballets that you might see anywhere, such as Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 and Allegro brillante, and Tudor’s Lilac Garden, but he has a particular interest in Ashton’s work – Alexander Grant staged Façade in January 2008 – and in Sadler’s Wells repertory too. One might even say Vic-Wells, because he has also brought in Ninette de Valois’s The Rake’s Progress and Checkmate (the first US company to do so, I believe). It helps too that Webb is married to Margaret Barbieri, who shares his experience of dancing these ballets and can be relied on for authentic staging, as here.
This is a company of young dancers, to whom Webb has been able to communicate his enthusiasm for Ashton – I was told that many dancers have expressed an interest in joining the company particularly because they want to dance his ballets. Ashton set out deliberately to challenge his own young company technically in Les Patineurs, and it is still not an easy ballet to dance, even for the corps de ballet. The role of the “Blue” skater is a touchstone of male virtuosity, while the “Blue” girls have to accomplish, respectively, the sequence of 32 fouettés (in 1937 supposed to be the exclusive property of the Russian “baby ballerinas”) and the manège of piquée turns with alternating port de bras. Sarasota had a brilliant male soloist in the short, wiry Logan Learned, a recent recruit, while Alison Dubsky threw in double fouettés and tours à la seconde.
Les Patineurs is a perfect ballet: in the 70 years since its creation there has been no need to make any changes to its choreography or design, though we never see the women wearing muffs any more. (True, when Ballet Theatre first staged it in 1946 Cecil Beaton made new designs, but they didn’t last.) As always in Ashton’s ballets, the people seem to have a life that goes on after the ballet is over. As C.W. Beaumont wrote, they are “the beginners, the experts, and the lovers, who find the pastime a fine opportunity for holding hands.”
The Two Pigeons, perhaps, is not quite perfect – those gypsy dances do go on a little long, even though Ashton manages to give them as much variety as possible, and there are those who find the bird-like movements in the first act pas de deux a bit too cute. But crafty Ashton surprises us in the final duet by enlarging them and investing them with a depth of emotion that always reduces me to tears, as many times as I have seen it.
In the original 1886 production of the ballet, by Louis Mérante at the Paris Opéra, the ballerina had a dual role, as the young girl who then disguised herself as a gypsy. Ashton wisely divided the parts in his version. Margaret Barbieri is one of the few dancers to have performed both the Young Girl and her gypsy rival, and in Sarasota she entrusted them to Kyoko Takeichi. More unusually, I think, Octavio Martin danced both male roles. I rather preferred them as the gypsy couple (in the first cast). Lauren Strongin, the Young Girl in the first cast, and her partner, Sergiy Mykhaylov, fully internalised their roles by the second performance and were as moving as one could wish in their reconciliation. Indeed, the Americans Strongin and Dubsky (second cast Young Girl), the Japanese Takeichi and Saneyuki Kawashima (second cast Gypsy Lover), the Russian Mykaylov, and the Spanish Martin, proved once again that you don’t have to be British born to dance the supposedly quintessential English choreographer Ashton.
The Sarasota Company had the advantage of using scenery and costumes from Birmingham Royal Ballet (Two Pigeons was presented in the touring version, which admittedly lacks certain elements of the original, such as the palisades that divide the two scenes of the second act). Inevitably, I suppose, the music for both ballets was recorded, albeit in excellent performances conducted by Richard Bonynge (Patineurs) and Barry Wordsworth (Pigeons), but both were too stridently amplified, obliterating the subtleties of André Messager’s orchestration.
These performances were given in tribute to Sir Frederick on the 20th anniversary of his death, and dedicated to the late Clive Barnes, who loved his work above all. Speaking for myself, I would say that Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri, and their dancers, did Sir Fred and Clive proud.