It’s not often that ballet audiences who are not within reach of Covent Garden have an opportunity to see a full programme of works by one of the finest choreographers in British ballet history – Sir Frederick Ashton. Over the next couple of weeks, lovers of ballet around the world can see, in cinema, dancers of The Royal Ballet in an on-screen presentation of three classics from Ashton’s repertoire of more than a hundred works – The Dream, Symphonic Variations and Marguerite and Armand. Filmed within the past couple of weeks, during The Royal Ballet’s most recent season at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, these works amply demonstrate the wide-ranging artistry of this most celebrated of choreographers, and the consummate elegance of his creations.
Undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in dance during his lifetime, Frederick Ashton is regarded as a principal architect of classical ballet in the 20th century. In 1935, he was appointed Resident Choreographer of the Vic-Wells Ballet by its Founder, Ninette de Valois, and developed the particularly English style which was to become the hallmark of the Company’s successor, The Royal Ballet, established in 1956, of which he was Founding Choreographer. In 1963 he took over as Director of The Royal Ballet and The Royal Ballet School, continuing to choreograph during his tenure, and also introducing to the Company a number of important works such as Nijinska’s Les Noces, Balanchine’s Serenade and a ballet which he commissioned – MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Sir Frederick retired as Director in 1970 to concentrate on choreography, creating his last work, Rhapsody, ten years later.
Ashton’s magical ballet The Dream premiered in 1964, as part of a program by The Royal Ballet to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. Basing his ballet on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and set to Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the Shakespeare play, Ashton created the roles of Oberon and Titania for Royal Ballet Principals Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, marking the beginning of their celebrated and legendary partnership.
Symphonic Variations is regarded by many as Frederick Ashton’s greatest ballet. An abstract work of great elegance, it’s performed to César Franck’s Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra by six dancers, who merge and part in a series of beautifully understated quartets, duets, sextets and solos. “It shows the absolute marriage between music and movement”, says Sir Anthony Dowell (former Director of The Royal Ballet), and accentuates the distinctive style for which Ashton was known. Symphonic Variations was premiered by the Sadlers Wells Ballet in 1946, at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in a performance by Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer, Pamela May, Michael Soames, Brian Shaw and Henry Danton.
The inspiration for Marguerite and Armand came from the play La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, on which Verdi’s La traviata was also based. Set to Liszt’s La lugubre gondola and his Piano Sonata in B Minor, Ashton’s ballet was created in 1963, specifically for what was then the new partnership between Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. This highly emotional story is presented in a series of flashbacks as Marguerite, a Parisian courtesan, lies on her deathbed, recalling her tragic love affair with Armand.
The cinema presentation will be hosted by former Principal dancer of The Royal Ballet, Darcey Bussell, who will be joined by broadcaster Ore Oduba. The screenings take place in the Bay Area on June 28 and July 2, and to find your nearest cinema, follow this link.