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Rambert Dance Company photo: Anthony Crickmay

Music made visible

Ashton's 'Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan'

by Jane Pritchard

Image: Melanie Teall in Ashton's "Five Brahms Waltzes", photo by Anthony Crickmay


Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan , choreographed by Frederick Ashton, is an evocation of the dances of the American-born Isadora Duncan (1877 – 1927), one of the great pioneers of modern dance, whom Ashton described as a dancer of ‘grace and power’. She opposed the rigidity of classical ballet of the late nineteenth century, rejecting the corseted tutu and pointe shoes in favour of free-flowing Greek-inspired draperies and bare feet, and danced on an undecorated stage in response to music generally intended for the concert hall. Her radical approach to dance, her unconventional life style, and her outspoken comments on both turned her into a media figure.

Although Five Brahms Waltzes is not unique to Rambert Dance Company’s repertoire it has particular resonance for us. The solos are ‘Dedicated to Marie Rambert who shared my admiration for Isadora Duncan’ and it was Ashton’s last work for Ballet Rambert. Created for the Company’s 50 th Anniversary Gala (on 15 June 1976) the work expanded on the brief solo ( Brahms-Waltz to Opus 39 No.15 - the final dance with the streaming rose petals) that had been choreographed the previous year for Lynn Seymour.

In creating the ballet for a solo dancer and pianist, Ashton drew on his recollection of seeing Duncan perform in London in 1921; ‘In one Brahms waltz…she had her hands full of petals and, as she ran forward, the petals streamed after her. It sounds terribly corny but it was wonderful.’ In an interview for Ballet Review Ashton recalled that he had attended a series of matinees at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London. The houses may have been sparse but Duncan’s impact was memorable, ‘She was a marvellous mover. She ran wonderfully. Even when she was galumphing around she was still impressive. She had a marvellous tragic impact and she had enormous grace. She had a quality I can only describe by saying that when she moved she left herself behind.’

When Ashton decided to extend the work he asked Marie Rambert for her memories of the artist who had inspired her to dance. In preparation for their discussion, or as a result of it, Dame Marie jotted down some of her own recollections. In this note (dated January 1976), which survives in the Rambert Archive, Rambert described Isadora ‘Running legato, staccato, hopping, skipping, bouncing off both legs on the spot, or travelling, also skipping with the working leg very bent, touching the supporting leg.’ She also recalled a specific dance performed by the young Duncan in which she played with imaginary osselets (or jacks). Interestingly, Rambert describes her as playing on a beach revealing how she released the imagination of the viewer as she was literally on a bare stage draped with blue curtains. The specific image Rambert remembered features in the first of the solos.

Ashton also drew heavily on the photographs and drawings of Duncan and encouraged the dancers performing the work to immerse them selves in Duncan iconography. Photographs of Duncan by Edward Steichen and Arnold Genthe are static but powerful and the hundreds of drawings of Duncan dancing by a wide range of artists, notably José Clará, Maurice Denis and Abraham Walkowitz, serve almost as a flick-book of her choreography.

Within the complete ballet each solo represents a different facet of Duncan’s dance and personality and it shows the young dancer maturing into the tragic woman whose children were drowned and who danced for the Bolshovik revolutionaries in Russia. In the first she is reclining and playful, she is then contemplative, in the third she is light, lyrical ‘like the breeze’ – skipping with a scarf, in the fourth she is heroic, even vengeful. Finally we see ‘Isadora’ with her trail of ‘rose petals’ that Ashton recalled.

Any reconstructing of Duncan dancing is a risky business, Ashton, himself, was aware that in creating this work he was ‘treading a tightrope between the sublime and the ridiculous’. The need to make the dances appear spontaneous (as Duncan did) increased the challenge. But Ashton succeeded in creating a real gem, in which dancer and pianist triumph on stage together. Indeed Five Brahms Waltzes successful encapsulates what Marie Rambert described as Duncan’s achievement - that her dances ‘perfectly translated the music in the movement…Music made visible.’

Five Brahms Waltzes returns to Rambert’s repertoire (taught to the new generation of dancers by Lynn Seymour) to mark the centenary of the birth of Frederick Ashton, Rambert Dance Company’s Founder Choreographer. It had been last performed for Rambert by Lucy Burge in 1986, the Company’s 60 th Anniversary season.


Jane Pritchard is the Archivist at Rambert Dance Company.

This article was first published in “Meeting Point” the magazine for Rambert supporters. Here is the link to more information about the various Rambert supporter schemes.

Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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