Review: SARASOTA BALLET - PROGRAMME 1, Royal Opera House

English ballet, or rather style wouldn't exist without Sir Frederick Ashton

By: Jun. 05, 2024
Review: SARASOTA BALLET - PROGRAMME 1, Royal Opera House
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Review: SARASOTA BALLET - PROGRAMME 1, Royal Opera House "wit, charm and elegance" are the words used to describe the work of Royal Ballet founding choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-1988). English ballet, or rather style wouldn't exist without him, so The Frederick Ashton Foundation have understandably instigated the Ashton Worldwide (2024-2028) international festival to celebrate the man, his work, and the impact it continues to have on the ballet world. The festival opened last night with the Sarasota Ballet performing a triple bill at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre.

Sarasota Ballet is currently run by Artistic Director Iain Webb, and Assistant Director Margaret Barbieri since 2007. Both had extensive careers with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, with Webb also moving across to the Royal Ballet. They worked closely with Ashton during this period, so act as very qualified gatekeepers of the canon in the United States. These performances, of three different programmes at the ROH, are Sarasota Ballet's first international touring dates, so the excitement feels palpable. And even though I trained at the Royal Ballet School, I must admit I've never seen any of the three ballets they're presenting in this first bill.

Valses nobles et sentimentales was originally choreographed in 1947, but what we see is the 1987 production overseen (and adapted) by Ashton himself. Starting off with the bad news, I'm still very much more a fan of Ashton's later work to a Ravel score, La Valse (1958). The recorded music for Valses nobles et sentimentales probably doesn't help matters, but neither do the costumes by Sophie Fedorovitch. Pink tulle, soft curls and bows just feel way too much, even for a period piece.

Choreographically the use of épaulement and effacé line is unmistakably Ashton, as are the seamless transitions from scene to scene truly creating an elegant, party atmosphere. Ashton also has the skill of featuring numerous dance moments simultaneously without making the experience overfacing. Others need to study this structural approach and take note, as we don't see this level of organic composition in many other places.

The company dance well using torsion as they go, but opening night nerves seemed to cause the odd mind blank and collision in action. And considering the piece is only 77 years old, it feels a lot more dated.

Dante Sonata was originally choreographed in 1940, and reimagined by David Bintley in 2000 with the support of original cast member Pamela May, as well as Jean Bedells and Pauline Clayden. It couldn't be more different from the opening work, showing Ashton in full modern mode, and the end result is a dynamic piece.

Considering the period of creation, the ballet is a timely study of good versus evil, and uses silent movie levels of drama to ram home the point. Throughout one can see external references; Ninette de Valois’ Job (1931) in the two dimensional, structural use of form, and Martha Graham in the presence of floorwork and contraction.

Ashton went down the route of white signifying good and black evil, which feels very early 20th century, but the movement within the work and the enlivened execution by the Sarasota dancers makes for engaging stuff. I can't get enough of the high drama dashing around the stage, clawed evil hands and danseur noble tableaux, less so the cannibalism and crucifying. The Liszt score keeps feeding the turbulence of the piece, but I didn't find myself feeling awkward, rather I kept thinking about the choreographic range of the man.

Sinfonietta was first performed in 1967 and saw a new production mounted by Lynn Wallis for the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in 1981, and the big question is: why doesn't it feature in the current Royal Ballet repertoire? It seems criminal even after only one viewing.

Sinfonietta is quintessentially Ashtonian, and an undeniable masterpiece. It sees Ashton laugh in the face of convention, and take his audience to another world via the mystery of dance.

The first and third movements are absurd and sharp in nature, revealing Ashton's innate musicality - helped no end by Malcolm Williamson’s riveting score - only rivaled by Balanchine’s similar level of skill. The dancers cut and slice, dart and whirl, and every so often acknowledge the proscenium arch and the audience.

The second movement leaves mechanical precision behind in favour of intergalactic avant-garde. The one female and five male dancers seem like elegant aliens, and Ashton takes the content to another level of abstract boldness.

In this moment I realised Ashton in fact embraces the effort within ballet, unlike his forefathers, and shows the inner workings of the haute couture, encouraging the audience to revel in the mechanical manoeuvres that make good choreography just that.

Watching Sinfonietta one understands more of Ashton than before, and also where he and Kenneth MacMillan align (think Concerto - 1966). Thank you Sarasota Ballet for bringing this gem back to London; and how long must we wait to see it on the ROH main stage…?

Sarasota Ballet perform at the Royal Opera House until June 9th

Photo credit: Frank Atura


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