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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, "Thas Pas de Deux" (1971).

Each showing concluded with a ballet by another "Sir" -- in this case, Sir Kenneth MacMillan's thoroughly delightful "Elite Syncopations." Bringing ballets back for multiple viewings makes the case in point that many ballets require "seasoning," and this is clearly evident with how much better "Elite" came across to me this round. I certainly enjoyed it last season, and this year the dancers -- and the audience -- seemed more "into it." Understanding the characterizations more fully helps make each scene of this zany ballet "read." Repetition can be a valuable tool.

For some of the same reasons, I'd have to argue that I wish some of Ashton's works had been programmed for 2005, and that 2004 was not just a one-shot deal. Perhaps in 2006 (and they could even surprise us with an addition of one or two pieces during 2005; hint-hint) there will be a return of Ashton to the War Memorial Opera House boards.

Of the Ashton canon on display, while very much liking them all, I was particularly smitten with "Symphonic Variations." Some have referred to this as being his "Concerto Barocco." The parallels are easily and reasonably reached (1940s, white leotard ballet, no narrative, etc.), but the results are certainly not parallel. The "feel" for each is certainly different and not from the same mix of spices and movement palette.

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.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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