It has long been the intention of the Sarasota Ballet's Artistic Director, Iain Webb, to pay special homage to Frederick Ashton, the British choreographer whom he came to know and revere while a young dancer with the Royal Ballet.
The time has come. To celebrate the quarter century anniversary of Ashton's death — and during National Dance Week as well — Webb is welcoming an international audience for the Sir Frederick Ashton Festival, four jam-packed days of lectures, films and performances, a veritable Ashton sampler. The schedule includes four evening triple bills (with live music opening and closing nights), showcasing eight of the 13 Ashton ballets Webb has introduced to the repertoire since his arrival in 2007, as well as a few divertissements never before seen here.
No less an authority than the New York Times' dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, has called the festival "the most extraordinary dance adventure in 2013-14 in the United States."
Even given his bias as a fellow Brit, Ashton afficionados in America would have to agree.
Music: Alexander Glazunov
World premiere: Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1956
Sarasota premiere: February 2013
A piece d'occasion created in 1956 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, which was soon to receive a royal charter and become the Royal Ballet. A series of virtuoso displays in the classical tradition, it honors seven renowned ballerinas of the time — Margot Fonteyn, Elaine Fifield, Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, Violetta Elvin and Beryl Grey — and their distinctive individual styles.
Music: Sir Benjamin Britten
World premiere: New York City Ballet, 1950
Sarasota premiere: November 2013
The first of two works Ashton created for the New York City Ballet, "Illuminations" is based on poems by Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of French poetry, who died at 36 after a life of debauchery and excess. Dark and mystical, it focuses on the theatricality of life, the menace of the city and the destructive aspects of physical beauty. It has a dark tone and a depiction of an underworld that, Rimbaud felt, only the artist, with his unique perception of the world, could understand.
Music: William Walton
World premiere: Camargo Society, 1931
Sarasota premiere: January 2008
"Facade" is a plotless series of eight divertissements, each a witty satire on the popular dance forms of the early 19th century — from polka to Paso Doble — and the dancers who danced them. Of particular note is the tango duet (in less politically correct times, known as "The Dago and the Debutante") which Ashton originally danced himself, and which mocks the professional dancing partners, or gigolos, hired by all the major ballrooms in the 1920s. Ashton made various revisions over the years, adding a "country dance" (since dropped) in 1935 and the Foxtrot in 1940.
Music: Daniel Auber
World premiere: Vic-Wells Ballet, 1933
Sarasota premiere: February 2011
Ashton's second creation for the Vic-Wells Ballet, this light-hearted suite of dances in which young people meet, flirt and part by the gates of a sunny park was created as a vehicle for Alicia Markova and Polish dancer Stanislas Idzikowski, emphasizing her delicacy and precision and his flamboyant bravura. The music, arranged by Constant Lambert, is taken from the opera "L'Enfant Prodigue," by the popular French composer Daniel Francois Auber.
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales
Music: Maurice Ravel
World premiere: Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1947
Sarasota premiere: February 2012
Ashton had used Ravel's original "Valses Nobles and Sentimentales" for his 1935 Valentine's Eve work for Ballet Rambert. Here he revisited the score, encapsulating the postwar yearning for glamour, style and elegance in a Britain bankrupted by WWII and still dominated by austerity. Designs by Sophie Fedorovitch suggest a ballroom with rich velvet and tulle costumes in maroon and pink, redolent of the both the Romantic ballet and the century-later Parisian catwalks of Christian Dior.
Music: Sir Malcolm Williamson CBE
World premiere: Royal Ballet Touring Company, 1967
Sarasota premiere: January 2014
This abstract ballet, created for the Royal's touring company in 1967, is representative of a mature and confident Ashton, willing to take risks and innovate while retaining his innate sense of musicality. It is essentially a "mood" ballet, changing style and form with the music, which changes over three movements from a toccata through an adagio/elegy to a spirited tarantella finish. The original production offered moving projections, since abandoned for a static set by Peter Rice.
Monotones I & II
Music: Erik Satie
World premiere: "Monotones II," Royal Ballet 1965; "Monotones I,: Royal Ballet 1966
Sarasota premiere: (both) February 2012
Uncharacteristic of Ashton in many ways, these two ballets, with their unitard and skull-cap costuming, have a futuristic feel, perhaps a reflection of the moon landing of the 1960s. "Monotones II" was created first, as a special occasion piece for a Royal Ballet gala; it features two men and a woman who is almost continually lifted overhead. Ashton added "Monotones I," for two women and a man and with an emphasis on purity of line, the following year. The two abstract works, with their understated clarity and precise, almost metronomic movements, are usually, but not always, performed together and in the original "opposite" order Ashton intended.
Music: Giacomo Meyerbeer
World premiere: Sadler's Wells Ballet 1937
Sarasota premiere: December 2008
When Ninette de Valois, the Sadler's Wells' director could make no choreographic headway with the music from two of the French composer Meyerbeer's operas ("L'Etoile du Nord" and "La Prophete," which had famously featured a corps du ballet on roller skates), she handed the chore to Ashton, her choreographic rising star. (He reciprocated by exchanging what would become "The Rake's Progress.") Ashton had never visited an ice rink in his life, but turned the score into a ice skating divertisement that has stood the test of time. The Sarasota Ballet earned national accolades in presenting "Les Patineurs" at the Ballet Across America showcase at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. last summer.
Assorted Divertissements (new to the repertoire)
Including "Jazz Calendar," with music by Richard Rodney Bennett (1968); the "Awakening Pas de Deux" from "Sleeping Beauty" (1968 version); "La Chatte," orchestrated by Philip Gammon (1985); "Meditation from Thais," violin solo from Massenet's opera, "Thais" ; and "Voices of Spring," to a waltz by Johann Strauss (1978).
Ashton Festival Schedule
All lectures and films at the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Rd.; all performances at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota, unless otherwise noted:
Tuesday, April 29
Noon: Kickoff Luncheon, Bijou Cafe, 1287 First St. ($100)
Wednesday, April 30
Noon: Lecture/Discussion: David Vaughn, author, "The Life of Ashton"
3 p.m.: Film: "Frederick Ashton, the Real Choreographer"
8 p.m.: "Birthday Offering," "Illuminations," "Facade"
Thursday, May 1
Noon: Lecture/Discussion: Jane Pritchard, "Ashton at Rambert"
3 p.m.: Film: "Enigma Variations" (original cast)
8 p.m.: "Les Rendezvous," "Symphonic Variations," "Facade"
Friday, May 2
Noon: Lecture/Discussion: Sir Peter Wright and Iain Webb
3 p.m.: Film: "Sir Frederick Ashton -- 1904-1988"
8 p.m. "Birthday Offering," "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales," "Sinfonietta"
Saturday, May 3
10 a.m. Sarasota Ballet class, taught by Iain Webb, Sarasota Opera House
1 p.m.: Festival wrap up discussion, Gompertz Theatre at Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave.
6 p.m.: "Monotones I & II," Divertissements ("Jazz Calendar," "Beauty," "La Chatte," "Thais," "Voices of Spring"), "Les Patineurs"
8 p.m.: Reception and gala dinner on Sarasota Opera House stage (8-11 p.m. ,$350-$500; seats limited)
Full festival packages available from $194-$324; performance packages from $80-$242; individual tickets from $10 (films) to $$20-$65 (performances). Call 359-0099, ext 101 or go to www.sarasotaballet.org.