Dance in London
With reference to all the dances you have studied in the Dance Studies lessons this term, identify and discuss what you consider to be the important characteristics of the choreography of Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton.
Before de Valois created a national company, dancing in London was of a poor quality and no major ballet schools existed. Adding to that, foreign companies like the Ballets Russes and the Paris Opera were not prone to touring the British Isles. De Valois realised that in order to keep the company going, it would require two resources: a ballet school, a source of young, highly-trained dancer that would fed directly into the company; and a repertoire of dance works for the company to perform.
She also saw a space in the British market for bringing the Diaghilev ballets to London. Unlike their Parisian counterparts, the London audiences are open-minded and eager to experience all kinds of ballet; from memory, she staged versions of the ballets and through her connections, she managed to persuade choreographers to come to London to stage productions, for example when Ashton invited Nijinska to restage Les Noces (1966).
However, despite wanting a company that would produce a diverse array of dance works, de Valois knew that no company could really exist without a selection of the Classical repertoire to perform. Since she had no real experience dancing these roles, nor had great connections to dancers who did, she looked to the Russian régisseur Nicholai Sergeyev, the ballet master of the Mariinsky, who had kept detailed copies of the notion for all the classics of the Russian repertoire. Such performances included Coppélia, Giselle, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
The work of Rambert and Cecchetti might have eventually encouraged Ashton to create his own style of dancing, which now, has become synonymous with the English style of Ballet. Ashton took lessons with Rambert, Craske and Massine, who all danced under Cecchetti at the Ballets Russes. Cohen feels that it was the gala performance, Birthday Offering (1956), that defines the Ashton style best - "delicate and precise in footwork and épaulement but with nobility of line and amplitude of phrasing." (Cohen, 1998, p.154) He also used articulation of the torso, or plastique, admiring it for its beauty and uniqueness, picking it up from Nijinska.
According to Vaughan, it was Karsavina that encouraged Ashton use "mime scenes and bit of comic business" that she had learnt whilst at the Mariinsky. (Vaughan, 1977, p.96) For Ashton, gestures become an important part of the dancing. Poesio feels that it can be regarded as an extension or "the continuation of a port de bra", even though it still remains a key way to communicate truthful ideas. (Poesio in Jordon & Grau, 1996, p.78) Ashton also relied on his own experience from when staging musical comedies when he studied under Rambert. (Cohen, 1998, p.147)
De Valois also had a major part of play in the defining of the English style. "Her own background had prepared her very well for this... She has absorbed from the two great teachers [Edouard] Espinosa and [Enrico] Cecchetti the principles of the French and Italian schools of ballet..." (White, 1985, p55) This combination meant both Ashton and de Valois could begin creating "a definite English style of dancing and... it is now emerging as a mixture of the best of the French, Russian and Italian methods." (Clarke, 1955, p307)
Her time in the Ballets Russes meant that she was in close proximity to Diaghilev and was able to learn a lot from his talents in business management and entrepreneurship. From Diaghilev, she learnt how to manage money efficiently, what costume and scenery worked well with ballets, how to spot the talented dancer, amongst other things. She took detailed notes on all these areas, when she wasn't rehearsing or in class and would later refer to these notes in order to solidify the company she was going to create.
Her great respect for Diaghilev also came from his similar view for a new kind of ballet to spread across the continent and America. "It became imperative for Diaghilev to transplant this cutting and see that it took root and grew fresh in foreign soils." (de Valois, 1957, p60) Both were interested that the ballet should spread to England, where the culture of dancing was still sparse and underfunded. One particular way that Ashton reached out the audience as such, was by introducing established theatrical characteristics into ballet. In particular, he used the Panto Dame to bring familiarity as they were heavily used in British Music Hall. (Vaughan, 1977; Cohen, 1998)
These roles, danced by older male members of the company (including Ashton), were not merely a bunch of gags, but were drawn with "close and loving observation". Key examples of where the travesti played an important role include the Widow Simone in Le Fille Mal Gardée (1960) and the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella (1948). In Fille, while the Widow Simone brings comedy to the ballet, more importantly the role provides critical dramatic scenes, breaking up the actually dancing, making the ballet more of a narrative-based piece rather than mere dancing.
Similarly, in Cinderella, the ridiculousness of Ashton and Helpmann playing the Sisters is quite entertaining and they use much more realistic mime than previously used in the Classical repertoire; it was simply acting without words. Therefore, it might be valid to say that Ashton attempted to bridge the gap between Ballet and British commercial theatre.
The company now had a mixture of English, Russian and Diaghilev choreography to work with. The forced evacuation of London in the Blitz meant that the ballets could be toured all over the countryside to people who did not have the means to see it normally. This created a deep interest in ballet for the British people and as well as providing relief from the War, meant that knowledge of ballet and the company could grow. "The main effect of Diaghilev... was to arouse an interest in the ballet... I had come to one conclusion: the same should happen... - in England." (de Valois, 1957, p72) Finally, when they returned to London, to the newly opened Opera house in Covent Garden, they had an immense following.
De Valois and Ashton were quite intent on making a ballet repertoire that which uniquely "English". Throughout his choreography, Ashton made reference to well-known and beloved British ideals that might encourage audiences to take an interest but more importantly, add more to the theatrical experience, that ballet might be more than simply dancing around. Ashton also made reference to the countryside of England. According to Vaughan, although Fille take place in the French countryside, it actually makes reference to the works Constable of Stubbs, painters famous for their depictions of East Anglia (Vaughan, 1977), as does A Month in the Country (1976) make great reference to the pleasant outdoors of Suffolk.
Similarly, Cinderella (1948) is understood to be one of the most popular in the English Panto repertoire; therefore, its creation would have to be somewhat of a spectacle. In one famous incident, Ashton directed prima ballerina Moira Shearer to descend a flight of stairs, en pointe and directly looking at the audience. Ashton pointed that if she did not A) look at the audience for the whole period, and B) stay perfectly on en pointe, she would never dance this role again. The object of this was not to be harsh of the dancer, but that this single moment had to be a complete vision, a sceptical to complete enthral the audience member into this fantasy world of dancing.
- Narrative Form - Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971)
- Relation to Petipa's Classicism.
Cohen, S. J. (ed.) (1998) International Encyclopaedia of Dance. New York: OUP
Clarke, M. (1955) The Sadler's Wells Ballet. London: A&C Black
Davidson, G. (1952) Ballet Biographies. London: Werner Laurie
De Valois, N. (1957) Come Dance with Me: A Memoir. London: Hamish Hamilton
Jordan, S. & Grau, A. (ed.) (1996) Following Sir Fred's Step. London: Dance Books
Manchester, P. W. (1946) Vic-Wells: A Ballet Progress. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd
Vaughan, D. (1977) Frederick Ashton and His Ballets. London: A&C Black
Walker, K. S. (1987) Idealist without Illusions. London: Hamish Hamilton
White, J. (1985) 20th Century Dance in Britain. London: Dance Books
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