Notes on Choreography
With every new ballet that I produce I seek to empty myself of some plastic obsession and every ballet I do is, for me, the solving of a balletic problem.
But let me begin by explaining what I understand the function of the choreographer to be. First of all, he is to the ballet what a playwright is to a play; but whereas the playwright writes his play and generally hands it on to a producer who animates it for him and puts it on the stage, a choreographer does all this himself. Usually he is his own librettist also, so that in a sense the whole fount of the creation comes from him.
When I was younger I created ballets freely, spontaneously and without much thought; the steps just flowed out of me and if they had any shape or form at all, generally it was because the music already had it, and not because I had consciously placed it there. Also, as befits the young, I wanted very much to please my audience and I thought it of great importance that I should entertain, amuse and charm them. Now I don't think that way. Up to a point I don't care what the audience thinks, I work purely and selfishly for myself and only do ballets which please me and which I feel will both develop me as an artist and extend the idiom of the dance.
There are many different sources from which a ballet may spring to life. One can be affected by the paintings of a great master and wish to animate them; one may read a story which calls to be brought to life in movement; or one can hear a piece of music which somehow dances itself. And one can have strange ideas of one's own, or a theme may be suggested by some outside influence. In the course of my career I have responded to all these different forms of impetus.
As I said, one can be moved by the paintings of a great master and wish to animate them. This I have done in two or three of my own ballets, such as my very first which was Leda and the Swan.
In this I was stirred by the paintings of Botticelli; I copied the postures and generally created, I think, the fresh springlike by morning of the world atmosphere of his paintings. I think this is a very good way for young choreographers to begin. Now that I am older I rather despise this form of creation, but it is certainly an absorbing way of working, for it necessitates the study of a whole period of painting and of manners, and this gives plastic richness and diversity to the pattern of the dance.
In my ballet The Wise and Foolish Virgins
, which was arranged to the music of Bach, I went to eighteenth-century baroque but whereas previously in Leda and the Swan
I had studied the paintings, in this ballet I not only studied baroque painting in general but also sculpture and architecture, and I tried to convey, with the bodies of the dancers, the swirling, rich, elaborate contortions of the baroque period. In this ballet no lines were spiral, everything was curved and interlacing, and the line of the dancers was broken and tormented, so to speak. That was a fascinating exercise for me.
As in the two ballets I have just described I studied the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, I would like now to tell you of another ballet I did, which was taken from a literary theme. This was called The Quest
, and came out of the first book of Spenser's Faerie Queen
, about the legend of Saint George, Una and the Dragon. It was an enormous canvas and I must say that I found it a struggle to give any idea in the ballet of the richness of Spenser's imagery, and quite frankly I don't think I really succeeded. The danger, in this kind of ballet, is that one comes upon situations which are purely literary and unballetic and are thus impossible to convey clearly to an audience without the use of words; for I personally do not like a ballet in which the audience has to spend three-quarters of the time with their noses in the program to try and find out what is happening on the stage. And I found it difficult, with allegorical characters, to convey clearly their humanity and to bring them to life on the stage as Spenser has brought them to life in his great poem. I personally am not fond of the literary ballet, because it seems to me that there comes a hiatus always in which one longs for the spoken word to clarify the subject. And these ballets seem to lead always more to miming than to dancing, thereby invading the functions of the drama or the cinema. In my balletic ideology it is the dancing which must be the foremost factor, for ballet is an expression of emotions and ideas through dancing, and not through words or too much gesture, though naturally these can play their part. But I am against the overlapping of one into the other, except in the case of intentional music dramas, when all the arts are welded into a whole.
This brings me to my third heading, which is taking one's lead directly from the music, and this is the method which I now prefer. Through it one gets the purity of the dance expressing nothing but itself, and thereby expressing a thousand degrees and facets of emotion, and the mystery of poetry of movement; leaving the audience to respond at will and to bring their own poetic reactions to the work before them. Just as the greatest music has no program, so I really believe the greatest ballets are the same, or at any rate have the merest thread of an idea which can be ignored, and on which the choreographer may weave his imagination for the combination of steps and patterns.
I consider that my own most successful ballets come under this category. The first ballet that I tried in this style was Les Rendezvous
to the music of Auber. To this gay and sparkling music, and to the merest thread of an idea--it consists only of young people meeting and parting and meeting again--I wove, I think, a rich pattern of dancing which worked up to a climax, as did the music itself. And consciously, all through my career, I have been working to make the ballet independent of literary and pictorial motives, and to make it draw from the rich fount of classical ballet; for, to my way of thinking, all ballets that are not based on the classical ballet and do not create new dancing patterns and steps within its idiom, are, as it were, only tributaries of the main stream.
Please don't misunderstand me and think that, by saying this, I mean there are not great ballets which are literary and pictorial. What I do mean to say is that they are isolated examples, and that if this line is pursued too strongly it will bring about the decadence of the dance. If the ballet is to survive, it must survive through its dancing qualities, just as drama must survive through the richness of the spoken word. In a Shakespearean play it is the richness of the language and the poetry that are paramount; the story is unimportant. And it is the same with all the greatest music, and dancing and ballets. In a ballet it is the dance that must be paramount.
Frederick Ashton and His Ballets
Perhaps the touchstone of choreography is its emotional expressiveness, and in all of Ashton's work his dances are particularly sensitive to overtones of feeling. The adolescent yearnings of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,
which shows, or rather hints at, the criss-cross of human relationships caught at the distilled abstraction of some strange ball, are revealed through the style of the actual choreography, with its languid arm movements contrasted with its impetuous entries. Even in such a slight work as Les Patineurs,
Ashton, while partly concerned with the technical task of simulating ice-skating with ballet dancers, never fails to make the actual dancing emotionally expressive, and is constantly alive to the ballet's atmosphere. The perky choreography of the Blue Boy's solo, full of over-exuberant swank, the gracefully Victorian love of the White Skaters (he is all gallantry; she, all swoons) and the way in which all the dancing manages with its briskness to suggest the crispness of a winter morning, helps to give Les Patineurs
a quality deeper than the thin ice of its surface charms, enabling it to bear the weight of any number of repetitions. This vigilance towards style and atmosphere is fundamentally a matter of craftsmanship, and naturally it is something which Ashton shares with all good choreographers. Even so it seems pertinent to insist that Ashton is an unusually fine craftsman, a quality that may perhaps be dissociated from his artistry. Thus while many choreographers can impose a generally coherent basic movement style upon a ballet, Ashton carries this quality to extreme lengths.
Sometimes he will slightly modify his whole mode of choreographic expression for an individual ballet. The glaringly obvious example of this is to be found in the plastic style he uses for Dante Sonata
. More moderate, and more typical, is his procedure in Ondine
, where for much of the ballet he adopts a peculiarly flowing type of choreography (based, he once claimed, on the movement of water), which gives the whole work a highly individual flavor. Birthday Offering
he carried out in a style that suggested throughout, or perhaps "evoked" would be the better word, the Maryinsky ballet at the turn of the century, giving the work a sense of the Glazunov period, just as in Sylvia
he has, particularly in his groupings, caught something of the Second Empire ballet prints, without sacrificing the contemporary tone of his choreography.
In giving individuality to a ballet, Ashton uses a number of varying devices. Sometimes this is as simple as sustaining a particular mood, so that La Fille Mal Gardee
takes much of its flavor from a consistent suggestion of the countryside with its rustic simplicity and humors. But before discussing atmosphere in Ashton ballets, mention might be made of another of his favorite tricks that can be seen in La Fille Mal Gardee
--the use of leitmotiv
. Here he utilizes tap dancing (admittedly in some rather unusual guises) and various kinds of ribbon dances to give the choreography a sense of continuity. Leitmotiv
also appears in Cinderella
, where for example, soubresaut retires first appear in the Fairy Spring variation, are later taken up by all the Seasons, and then are finally given in the second act by the Prince's friends.
"Atmosphere" is one of those jargon words so useful to hard-pressed journalists, because in ballet criticism it implies more than it means. It is always difficult to define precisely what is meant by atmosphere in a ballet, but perhaps one could call it the sustained suggestion or evocation of a particular mood, a particular period and place, or even a particular cultural background. The keywords are "sustained" and "particular." Personally I have never been able to understand why some ballets (and not always good ballets at that) should have this quality of atmosphere, while others have not, and I imagine that this is one of those mysteries that audiences and critics very rarely do unravel. Obviously atmosphere comes from a whole complex of sources, some combination of all the various constituents that go to make up a ballet, and however difficult it is to define, it is remarkably easy to recognize, or at least sense.
Ashton has the gift of evoking atmosphere to a pronounced extent. Sometimes, as in the examples of The Wise Virgins
and Dante Sonata
quoted above, this is achieved by allowing his choreography to be consciously influenced by painting, but frequently the method (and the result) is more involved and subtle. When he wants to give a ballet a literary flavor, Ashton has the remarkable facility for imbueing a whole work with just the right atmosphere. Comparatively few of his ballets fall into this literary category, and even when they do his approach and method vary considerably.
, his task was to suggest the burning symbolism of Rimbaud, and he achieved this with a series of short, descriptive charades (each evocative of a poem) through which the Poet himself wandered almost as a connecting link. These brief episodes--short, sharp flashes of insight, seen with the inner eye--have the fantastic artificiality of a dream, and the twisted beauty of Rimbaud was allowed to emerge through a formalized structure. Here Ashton is catching the author's spirit by giving a choreographic impression, perhaps even impersonation, of the author's style. In Madame Chrysanth
Ashton was basing his ballet on a novel by Pierre Loti, and on this occasion he evoked the literary original by adopting the author's approach to his subject, so that just as the novel is a delicately sensitive picture of Japan seen through European eyes, so Ashton's choreography aimed at the same effect.
In these two instances Ashton's intention (inter alia
) appears to have been to allude to specific literary styles, but on other occasions he has created ballets that are instinct with a whole period, or if you prefer, a cultural climate. Le R
êve de L
was a deplorable ballet (one of his few total losses), yet it did succeed in suggesting the thwarted, out-moded ethos of surrealism far more cogently than did Massine in his equally deplorable Mad Tristan.
In the same way, without comparing in detail the actual ballets, I feel that Ashton's Apparitions
was also more successful than Massine's Symphonie Fantastique
in its approach to its Romantic background. The shades of Walpole and Beckford haunting the elaborate fancies of Strawberry Hill and Fonthill, are never far from Ashton's scene. The Byronic, drug-taking Poet represents a somewhat later stage in the Romantic agony than the trappings of the rest of the ballet (he and his femme fatale
alone are pure Berlioz), but the orgy in the cavern, clearly inspired by the activities of Sir Francis Dashwood's Hell-fire Club, like the funeral cortege deriving from Lewis's novel The Monk
, helped to give Apparitions
an exciting authenticity and a curiously pungent historical flavor.
Having now stressed the diversity found in Ashton's ballets I am left with the more difficult job of describing their kinship one to another, for underneath all their differences there runs his individual and quite unmistakable basic, choreographic style. What is the fundamental nature of Ashton's choreography? Two words suggest themselves to me--"fluent" and "lyrical." Fluency is an immediate characteristic of Ashton's work. The steps have a flow, and enchainement after enchainement pours out with an unforced originality.
Excerpted from Reading Dance by Edited by Robert Gottlieb. Copyright © 2008 by Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.