DANSOX lectures are wonderful occasions. On Wednesday, the critic Alastair Macaulay shared memories, commentary and new insights with an audience of local residents, members of the University and distinguished visitors from the dance world. He began by setting his subject within its historical and cultural context, before launching into a wide ranging discussion of ballets ranging from the classical abstraction of Symphonic Variations to the humour, romance and narrative of La Fille Mal Gardée.

This was a lecture about steps as well as stories and style, and so it was particularly enjoyable when Macaulay himself demonstrated the ‘Fred Step’ to the audience. For the most part, though, he used video clips to illustrate his remarks, and to show the way in which Ashton was inspired by or quoted from other works, for example finding echoes of Nijinska’s Les Noces, Petipa’s La Bayadere, Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Balanchine’s Apollo in Monotones II. He talked about Ashton’s great gift for characterization and his understanding of the way in which characters should move, whether in Enigma Variations or The Tales of Beatrix Potter. Macaulay is not afraid to tell a risqué story, or to describe how a quivering foot embodies the moment of a woman’s orgasm; a reminder that for all its ‘Englishness’, classicism and impeccably good taste, Ashton’s work is also passionate and deeply erotic.

Yet what is most remarkable about Ashton’s ballets is the way in which there is always something new to discover, whether it is a fifth rhythm in Scènes de Ballet or the source of a movement idea. Macaulay left us with a description of the ‘crinkle crankle’ wall at the house in Suffolk that Ashton bought in the 1950s. When asked recently whether the shape of the wall had influenced Ashton’s choreography, he realised that the wavy lines of the wall are echoed in the rippling arm movements of the seven ballerinas in Birthday Offering, created at about that time.

This was everything that a public lecture should be: serious but entertaining; accessible but shedding some new light on a subject that merits further study.[1]

Maggie Watson

6 March 2016

[1] To read more about Ashton’s style, see Geraldine Morris’s work Frederick Ashton’s Ballets: Style, Performance, Choreography, reviewed here https://oxforddancewriters.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/frederick-ashtons-ballets-style-performance-choreography-by-geraldine-morris-maggie-watson-reviews/