Frederick Ashton Triple Bill review – time’s up for these fairy kings

Royal Opera House, London
Music, choreography and dancing were superb at the Royal Ballet’s celebration of Frederick Ashton. But, oh, the costumes…

In Marguerite and Armand, which closed the Royal Ballet’s triple bill of works by Frederick Ashton (the final performance was on Saturday), it was noticeable that Marguerite’s coterie of male admirers were not wearing their customary shoulder-length wigs. This was a relief; the original Cecil Beaton designs may have struck the right note in 1963, when the ballet was created, but today those wigs look ridiculous.

The reason I mention them is that the Royal Ballet faces a dilemma, although not one it’s prepared to acknowledge. Ashton was the company’s founder choreographer, and his finest ballets – Symphonic Variations, Scènes de ballet, La fille mal gardée and others – rank among the greatest British artworks of the 20th century. But the love and reverence that these ballets inspire has resulted in them being frozen in time; for the most part, their costumes and designs remain the same as when they were created half a century ago.

This cultural taxidermy may please Ashtonian purists but the world has changed beyond recognition since Ashton’s day. When he was making his ballets, he could count on a substantial section of his audience having received a “classical education”, and sharing an aesthetic sensibility appreciative of neo-Hellenic ideals of beauty, particularly male beauty. In Sylvia, the male lead appears in a buttock-skimming Grecian tunic, effectively a miniskirt. In Monotones, the men wear jewelled skullcaps and shining bodystockings, and according to Julie Kavanagh, Ashton’s biographer, “could be abstract reincarnations of the naked youths performing dances and gymnastics at the Gymnopedia festivals of Apollo”. Jewelled men’s headdresses recur in Symphonic Variations, along with single-shouldered tunic tops inspired by ancient Grecian statuary.

These Parnassian elements in the costuming of Ashton’s ballets have not worn well. They always looked more than a little camp; now, like the Marguerite and Armand wigs, they look frankly silly. You can plead the wonders of Symphonic Variations all you like to a ballet novice, but it’s hard to explain why the three guys on stage are wearing tiaras and off-the-shoulder blouses designed in the 1940s. I love The Dream, and could watch it for ever, but even I have to admit that the sight of Oberon wearing drag-queen levels of eye-shadow and trailing clouds of tinsel and green chiffon is a bit much. I know it’s ballet, and he’s the fairy king and all that, but still.

‘Off-the-shoulder’: Tristan Dyer and James Hay in Symphonic Variations.
‘Off-the-shoulder’: Tristan Dyer and James Hay in Symphonic Variations. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Choreographically and musically, Ashton’s ballets remain as lustrous as the day he made them, and the Royal continues to give a fine account of them. The triple bill was splendidly danced over the course of its nine-day run. Fairies flitted beguilingly in The Dream, Symphonic Variations wove its ineffable spell, a trio of sad-eyed Marguerites expired in their lovers’ arms. Of starry performances, there was no shortage. For all the choreography’s enduring sparkle, however, there’s a Miss Havisham look about the Royal Ballet’s Ashton repertoire. The clocks have been stopped, and time stands still. With or without the wigs, Marguerite and Armand’s designs look dreadfully dated, and other works have fared worse.

That this is a serious issue was recently confirmed by Tamara Rojo, director of English National Ballet. Rojo loves Ashton’s work, which she performed extensively as a dancer, but has said that she is unwilling to stage his ballets if she is not permitted to update the costumes to make them more appealing to young audiences. That she has not scheduled any Ashton works tells its own story. Imagine trying to introduce a new generation of theatregoers to Shakespeare’s plays, and being limited to stagings from the era of Olivier and Gielgud.

Ballet is nothing if not a living art form, and Britain has no shortage of brilliant artists and designers who could revive dowdy productions like Marguerite and Armand. Left as they are, Ashton’s ballets will fade into a heritage twilight, like other “untouchable” artworks before them. And that would be a tragedy.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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