Frederick Ashton mixed bill

Dance, Ballet
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Frederick Ashton mixed bill
Dee Conway ©
SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS ROH 1 Jun 05 STEVEN McRAE photograph: Dee Conway ©

Exhilarating, thoughtful and just 90 minutes long, these four riveting dance pieces by one of the world’s greatest choreographers hit all the right notes.

Setting the tone for this evening of works by the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer Frederick Ashton is his 1948 masterpiece ‘Scenes de Ballet’. The curtain raises as Stravinsky’s avant-garde tones flood the auditorium to a strikingly modern, potently exciting piece in which the choreography is an interpretation of a typical ballet finale and the costumes inspired by the theorems of the Greek mathematician Euclid.

There is a brief pause before 1976’s ‘Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan’, a fleeting (nine-minute) homage to a dancer who a lasting impression on both a younger Ashton and also contemporary dance as we know it today. Set to a solo piano, Helen Crawford glides around an unadorned stage to channel Duncan, bare feet and all, with heavenly precision.

Next up is 1946’s ‘Symphonic Variations’, the first ballet Ashton made after returning from his RAF posting during World War II. Stripping back to six dancers, three male and three female, with a simple abstract backdrop, Ashton contemplates of life and death through a stunning array of duets, sextets, solos and quartets. The latter is the most dynamic with one male and three female dancers intertwining amongst each other in euphoric fluidity.

It’s apt to end the evening with one of Ashton’s final works for the Royal Ballet, even if 1976’s ‘A Month in the Country’ feels like a slight step down. Condensing Ivan Turgenev’s five-act play about a love triangle between a mother, her daughter and a tutor, into 40 minutes, it’s set in nineteenth-century Russia, yet the composition is firmly situated in the twentieth. The sexual chemistry between Zenaida Yanowsky (Natalia Petrovna) and Beliaev (Rupert Pennefather) is a perfect blend of tantalising and reserved.

The older, more sophisticated works may shine the brighter, but all four pieces are unmistakably from the hand of a truly gifted and forward-thinking choreographer.

By: Freire Barnes

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