Frederick Ashton’s Ballets:  Style, Performance, Choreography, by Geraldine Morris, Dance Books, 2012

Original, informed and scholarly, this book could transform the way in which Ashton’s ballets are performed today.  On p.60, Morris quotes Nijinska’s complaint:  The dancers turn everything into what they can already do and consequently ‘falsely transmit the choreographic score …’.  Morris addresses this problem with regard to Ashton’s work, which, she argues, we are in danger of losing if we fail to recognise the individual style that is intrinsic to his choreographic output.

Ashton’s creative talent emerged from a particular time, place and cultural milieu.  His style was the product of a range of artistic and pedagogical influences in a period when ballet training in England was in flux.  Although de Valois worked hard to nurture an English school of dance, this does not seem to have resulted in a rigid view of how English ballet should be danced.  On the contrary, within the school of English ballet, dancers from diverse backgrounds were able to continue to develop their unique talents and yet work within a recognisably English style.  The analysis of the seven variations in Birthday Offering, each created for a dancer with a different classical heritage, shows this.

Morris sets out her methodology in Chapter One and uses it to identify not only Ashton’s signature steps, but also the dynamic quality of his work.  She explicitly rejects the codification of movement, such as she discerns in the Soviet approach to dance, and she specifically admits the possibility of choice.  She aims to give performers the understanding that will enable them to make decisions wisely and achieves this by identifying the key elements of Ashton’s work that distinguish his output from the danse d’école and from the work of any other choreographer.  Morris demonstrates that the style is as critical as the steps:  it is not the inclusion of “the Fred step” that makes a dance Ashton’s, but the context and way in which that phrase of steps is danced.  Morris looks not so much at Ashton’s dance vocabulary (although she does consider it), as at the different ways in which that vocabulary is used and performed.  She does this by comparing and analysing six ballets[1]:  two with words, two non-narrative and two narrative, to demonstrate that across six decades and in a variety of forms, Ashton revealed a consistent choreographic voice.

I love this book:  it is very demanding of the reader, particularly when Morris describes and analyses unfamiliar dance material, but it illuminates the style of dance with which I grew up.  It is easy today to undervalue this style because it is not overtly difficult or spectacular, but that is to miss so much.  Ashton’s style was infinitely varied and immensely subtle.  It requires of dancers (among other things) sudden changes in speed, direction and weight, quick jumps, swift footwork, and a deep understanding of épaulement.  The line is less upright, the extensions lower and the jumps smaller than is generally fashionable today, but that does not make it less beautiful or technically easier.  By defining and explaining this style, Morris is giving it back to us.  When I read this book, I felt as though I had come home.

Maggie Watson

[1] A Wedding BouquetIlluminationsBirthday OfferingJazz CalendarDaphnis and Chloe;  A Month in the Country

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