San Francisco Ballet - 'Program 7'
Ashton's Assets: San Francisco Ballet's Ashton Program
by Dean Speer
April 18, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
One of the best things that can
be said for San Francisco Ballet's almost all-Ashton program ("Program
7") is that the ballets were actually done. Sir Frederick Ashton's
ballets are not done often enough on this side of the Atlantic, nor are
they in the repertories of many companies. How wonderful that San Francisco
Ballet celebrated the 100th anniversary of this important choreographer's
birth (as with Mr. Balanchine for Programs 5 & 6 before) with a marvelous
retrospective of a handful of some of his most famous works. These included
"Monotones I and II" (1965 and 1966, respectively), "Symphonic
Variations" (1946), and the morceau, "Thaïs Pas de Deux"
It begins with the three women making simple port de bras, punctuated by circle motifs and the flattening of the arms to an overhead, parallel position. Another similarity to Balanchine's famous work is that the dancers are on stage throughout, in this case for about 18 minutes. I recall that the great Margot Fonteyn wrote that stamina was one of the biggest challenges for her (the original 1946 cast included Moira Shearer, Fonteyn, and Pamela May, plus Michael Somes in the lead male part.).Of the very impressive cast, I found that Nicole Starbuck came closest to my, perhaps preconceived, ideal of the Fonteyn (middle woman) part. Elizabeth Miner looked amazing, like Pamela May -- in May's part -- wonderful. Staged by Somes' widow, Wendy Ellis Somes, and coached by SFB ballet master Ashley Wheater, "Symphonic Variations" looked great. I hope that SFB continues to tap into Mr. Wheater's rich background of having worked directly with Frederick Ashton by bringing back these and other Ashton works. They do deserve to be seen, and we deserve to be enriched by them.
The audience audibly gasped when Muriel Maffre was lifted up in one fell swoop off the floor in "Monotones II" -- from prone in a vertical split, hanging on to her ankle, to the same position but upright. This ballet is based on Ashton's love of the idea that mankind was reaching to the stars and specifically the moon race. With its white costumes with futuristic caps, it's a very "sculptural" ballet with unusual shapes and floating images. Ashton shows his mastery of compositional form by creating tension right away in "Monotones I" by having the center man move out of the straight diagonal line he's in with the trio. From this point, I knew it was going to be a very smart ballet -- a hit in 1965-66 and a hit now.
Bravos to San Francisco Ballet for its retrospective programs of two of ballet's greatest from the top of the alphabet, Ashton and Balanchine.
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