The Tender Touch

Four companies celebrate in our city the 100th birthday of an English master choreographer

Ashton Celebration
Metropolitan Opera House
Through Saturday

"And they were all sweet and kind and English," Gertrude Stein observed in 1937 of the characters Frederick Ashton concocted for A Wedding Bouquet—a ballet accompanied by spoken phrases drawn from her work. Sweetness, kindness, and inevitably, Englishness mark the work of this great British choreographer, whose centennial is being celebrated this year along with Balanchine's.

The Ashton ballets shown during the Lincoln Center Festival also reveal his wit, tenderness, and consummate classicism. The two trios of Monotones I and II (1965), beautifully performed by the Joffrey Ballet, reveal his love of contrapposto, that gentle twisting of the limbs against the body to create asymmetry; the one-armed gestures; the intricate footwork and little jumps executed in place; and the elegant spatial designs.

Patterson and Shives in A Wedding Bouquet
photo: Tom Oldham
Patterson and Shives in A Wedding Bouquet

Set to music by Erik Satie, Monotones keeps its dancers clustered. The two women and one man of the first trio travel together as equals; in the second, two men slowly manipulate lithe Victoria Jaiani through beautiful contortions. In their gleaming unitards and elvish caps, molded by Kevin Dreyer's lights, the dancing figures inhabit a frieze in process, dreamily making and unmaking it in a timeless golden void.

Monotones refrains from intimating character and emotion, unlike the exquisite 1968 Enigma Variations, superbly re-created by the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Edward Elgar's 1898 variations are musical portraits of friends. Ashton brings these people to wander in Elgar's autumn garden (magically evoked by Julia Trevelyan Oman), where the composer is awaiting word as to whether his score has interested an important conductor. Through rhythm, gesture, and the torsion of the steps, Ashton captures the many moods of the afternoon. His astute character studies include a fussy eccentric who arrives on a bicycle (David Morse), a flirtatious adolescent girl (Carol-Anne Miller), and the brusque, speedy whirlwind, "Troyte" (Robert Parker). Rapid, intricate Ashtonian footwork suggests excitement and complex thought; women, lifted, walk on air in their delight. The nuances of love and friendship are unforgettably displayed in the scene that Elgar (Joseph Cipolla) and his solicitous, adoring wife (the luminous Silvia Jimenez) share with a close friend (Jonathan Payn). She has gently interceded in what might be an edgy altercation between the men, when the music swells powerfully; in contrast to this climax, Ashton has Elgar lift her just a few inches off the ground. The suppressed tenderness of it wrings your heart.

A Wedding Bouquet, performed here by the Joffrey, is laid at a gathering in the country, and like Enigma, ends with everybody assembled for a photograph. But this is an uproarious party. Josephine gets drunk and is ordered to leave; the groom is an unredeemed lecher; mad, mournful Julia clings to his leg while he manipulates his bride in a pas de deux gone wrong; lustful men and disapproving women pursue their own ends; Julia's dog has a tutu number. Ashton's choreography and Lord Berners's charming music match Stein in wit. The Joffrey manages this still fresh nonsense expertly, but Stein's words, stylishly delivered by Christian Holder, can't always be understood, due to faulty miking and occasionally imprecise articulation.

Ashton comprehended those moments when rapture all but melts the body. It's not surprising that he was struck, back in the early 1920s, by Isadora Duncan. Without exactly copying her steps, his 1975 Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan evokes her maenad skipping, her breasting-the-wind runs, the way she, as Iphigenia, played at knucklebones. Except for a few too sharp gestures, Molly Smolen of the Birmingham Royal performs the solo magnificently.

Passion is the subject of the 1940 Dante Sonata, revived in 2000 by the Birmingham Royal. Children of Light and Children of Darkness rush and writhe to Lizst in a Zoroastrian equation—not only contending with but mingling with and balancing each other. When the male leaders of both contingents are lifted as if crucified, it is toward the one with the snakes twined around him that the leading barefoot woman in white reaches. As World War II broke out, Ashton's battling groups articulated the torment and confusion besetting England; now the ballet seems overwrought, yet still full of striking groupings and startling movement events.

Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninoff's florid Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and danced by the K-Ballet Company of Japan, isn't typical Ashton either, but it's an audience favorite at the Met. Made in 1980 to celebrate the late queen mother's birthday, it offered Mikhail Baryshnikov performing every bravura feat he and Ashton could come up with. Patrick Caulfield's decor situates the dancers in an alarmingly vivid modern painting and dresses them to match. Rhapsody is a flashy ballet, but it's also crammed with wonderful steps and clever patterns for the six couples led by company director and ex-Royal Ballet member Tetsuya Kumakawa, who dances with the requisite dazzle. Nice, the way Ashton has his premier danseur stimulate the guys to jump up like popcorn on the fire, and stand back to let them take turns partnering Viviana Durante, as if this were a deconstruction of the Rose Adagio for an on-the-go princess.

This week the Royal Ballet concludes the tribute to England's master.

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