Blink and you'll miss them

The Royal Ballet's Ashton revival includes plenty of rarely seen and surprisingly short works
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet's ongoing celebration of the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton is lavish. Having started with A Wedding Bouquet, back in repertory after an absence of 15 years, it continues with Sylvia - a ballet not seen for decades - and one that Ashton never saw performed, Devil's Holiday. "It is a retrospective season," says Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet, "but these ballets will be new to many people."

The Royal Ballet's ongoing celebration of the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton is lavish. Having started with A Wedding Bouquet, back in repertory after an absence of 15 years, it continues with Sylvia - a ballet not seen for decades - and one that Ashton never saw performed, Devil's Holiday. "It is a retrospective season," says Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet, "but these ballets will be new to many people."

Ashton, born 100 years ago, was the Royal Ballet's founder choreographer. His ballets shaped its classical style, creating a distinctively English lyricism - musical, with flowing line, brilliant footwork and expressive use of the torso. For the company, this Ashton year is a homecoming as well as a celebration.

Admired and popular though Ashton was, it has been a while since he dominated the repertoire in this way. From the 1980s, the company tended to concentrate on full-length works - you can always sell Swan Lake. Ashton, who loved short, tautly crafted ballets, suffered as a consequence. Antoinette Sibley, one of Ashton's favourite dancers from the 1960s on, remembers him always pruning, always worried that a ballet would be too long. She says: "Towards the end, he said, 'Twenty minutes is enough of anything.' "

Sylvia, one of this season's rarities, is a ballet that got shorter. Ashton's second three-act ballet, made in 1952, hasn't been danced since the late 1960s. By then, it had been cut down to a one-act work. Mason danced the lead role in that shorter version, but she has chosen to revive the full-length Sylvia, with its opulent designs and sweet Delibes score. It has taken careful work to recover the ballet - drawing on a 1965 film, from contemporary notation and from dancers' memories.

Another rarity depends on the memories of a single dancer. Devil's Holiday was an outside commission, made for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1939. When war was declared, the Covent Garden premiere was cancelled. Frederic Frank-lin, who danced the young lover in the original cast, has reconstructed a pas de deux, to be performed alongside other Ashton duets.

Mason is also bringing back the short Scènes de Ballet (shown as part of the Devil's Holiday bill), which Ashton loved. It's a brilliant tutu ballet, classicism concentrated and slightly spiky. It's gorgeous, and it's murderously difficult.

Mason has mounted an adventurous season - neglected ballets and rediscovered works alongside favourites like Scènes and La Fille mal Gardée. She has also returned to the kind of programming of more confident times: varied and ambitious, with plenty of shorter works. "Fred's ballets sit so comfortably with other people's work," she says. Celebrating Ashton's great variety, Mason can also show off her company's range.

'Sylvia', from 4 November; mixed bill from 13 November, The Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000)

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