Watching London’s Royal Ballet, you’re in the presence of eternal ballet verities. Delicate, precise, almost prim, excellent dancers performing two all-Ashton bills packed balletomanes into Washington’s Kennedy Center (June). Dozens of New York critics made the journey, since the Royal, which Frederick Ashton helped to found and which is where he worked until his death in 1988, bypassed New York on this tour.
A repertory program highlighted Ashton’s long career, and celebrated the impending retirement of current director Sir Anthony Dowell, who returned to the stage to perform Ashton’s 1980 Soupirs, made for him and ballerina Antoinette Sibley. She came out of retirement to dance in this wrenching work, in which estranged lovers encounter each other in a park, to discover that they’re reading the same Verlaine poem.
Sylvie Guillem and Jonathan Cope re-created parts originated by Fonteyn and Nureyev in Ashton’s Marguerite and Armond, a ballet to Liszt in which a dying courtesan recalls crises in her tragic life. All legs and achingly dashing, Cope magnetized Guillem by merely entering a room. Other dances emphasized line and form, rather than plot, and came equipped with startlingly modern scenery designed by Anthony Ward and Sophie Fedorovitch.
But the pleasure center of the run was Ashton’s 1960 version of La Fille Mal Gardée (The Badly Guarded Daughter), performed over the weekend by four different casts. I watched diminutive ballerina Miyako Yoshida outwit her vigilant mother (played brilliantly en travesti by Ashley Page) to land her suitor of choice (danced somewhat woodenly by Johan Persson). Among the charms of the production, in addition to Osbert Lancaster’s rustic designs, were the way the characters regularly broke the fourth wall to suck us into the action, and the kick line of four human-size chickens and a rooster, who won the hearts of the D.C. crowd.