Magazine article The Spectator

Aging Disgracefully

Magazine article The Spectator

Aging Disgracefully

Article excerpt

Dance

Aging disgracefully

Ondine

Royal Opera House

Sylvie Guillem and the Ballet Boyz

Sadler's Wells Theatre

I am perfectly aware that what I am about to say will upset several nostalgic dancegoers as well as various, and more or less self-professed, 'Frederick Ashton widows' of the ballet world. Well, tough, for I think it is about time to admit that, unlike other immortal masterworks by the same choreographer, Ondine has aged disgracefully. Created in 1958, the work has long suffered from the lack of cohesion between the utterly traditional choreography, which abounds in quotations from classical repertoire, and Hans Werner Henze's often tritely impressionistic score. Indeed, the collaboration between the father of British ballet and one of the most interesting exponents of 20th-century music failed miserably to produce the expected results. As the dance scholar and Ashton biographer David Vaughan reports, 'Wishing to avoid a pastiche of a Romantic-period ballet, Ashton sought the collaboration of a contemporary composer.' Alas, the contemporary music accentuated, instead of obliterating, the pastiche-like quality of the work. Watching Ondine today is like viewing a soundless video of Swan Lake while playing Franz Ferdinand's post-punk songs, only without the fun.

Almost 50 years down the line, the original cracks and flaws are showing more horribly than ever. With the sole exception of one or two numbers, such as the celebrated shadow dance, the choreography never reaches the creative and inventive heights found in Ashton's other narrative works. His unsuccessful attempt at reproducing the standard three-act structure of some late 19th-century classics impinged on the artistic and narrative flow. After a dance-filled first act, things go tragically wrong. In the mercifully brief second act, what comes across today as an appallingly naïve enactment of a shipwreck plunges the whole thing into the ridiculous. And, in the structurally messy third act, a superfluous divertissement as well as the tackiest finale one can think of - which includes hideous underwater fairy lights - thwart miserably the fairytale's dramatic crescendo.

The ballet, moreover, was created as a vehicle for the unique talents of Margot Fonteyn. Although many ballerinas have since managed to exorcise her hovering spectre, no one has ever gained full ownership of the role, which thus survives as one of the most dramatically shallow in the Ashton repertoire. …

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