There is much to recommend "Ashton Celebration" to the summer-festival audience since the Joffrey Ballet, directed by Gerald Arpino, has not appeared in New York since it relocated to Chicago 10 years ago and the 5-year-old K-Ballet is making its North American debut. The Birmingham Royal Ballet is performing Ashton revivals for the first time in decades, and the Royal Ballet is presenting a new production of Ashton's "Cinderella."
The opening-night bill of contrasting Ashton works featured the Joffrey in the 1965-66 "Monotones I and II," a plotless ballet with music by Erik Satie, the Birmingham in the 1968 "Enigma Variations," a plotted ballet set to music by Edward Elgar, and the K-Ballet in the 1980 "Rhapsody," a showpiece created for the late Queen Mother Elizabeth's 80th birthday and danced to Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini."
If the audience can be said to have a favorite, it is "Rhapsody," and rightly so. It starred the founder of the K-Ballet, former Royal Ballet principal dancer Tetsuya Kumakawa, teamed with another former Royal Ballet star, Viviana Durante. Ashton's choreography allowed Kumakawa to demonstrate a bravura dancing style that has been likened to that of Rudolf Nureyev and Durante to show off her brilliance and precision.
Kumakawa and Durante perform with the support of three couples -- Kazue Yasumura and Juan Rodriguez, Yuko Arai and Takuya Wajima, and Kayo Nagata and Alberto Montesso against Patrick Caulfield's geometrically designed set of arching reds, yellows and blues that echo the colors of his smartly flippant costumes.
The Kumakawa-Durante pas de deux danced to the most rhapsodic movement of Rachmaninoff's thrilling score was breathtaking in its swooning intensity, and Kumakawa -- ever the showman -- knew he had the wildly applauding audience in the palm of his hand and rewarded it with a blown kiss. Anthony Twiner conducted a lovely reading of the music, and Risa Takahashi was the piano soloist.
"Monotones I and II" requires the talents of two trios of dancers -- a man and two women in satiny white costumes worn with matching Oriental turbans and a woman and two men in gold costumes and turbans. Danced in a leisurely manner to the laid-back Satie score, handily conducted by Leslie Dunner, the trios seemed to create a dance vision of a alternative lifestyle as it might have been lived by the principals in Noel Coward's comedy "Design for Living."
Ashton's choreography for this work is at its best when his trios are clustered, arms moving to create the effect of a chrysanthemum coming into flower. Danced on a bare stage beautifully lighted by Kevin Dreyer, "Monotones" is a splendid example of Ashton's most lyric work in a series of interplay involving Michael Levine, Victoria Jalan, and Samuel Pergande and Calvin Kitten, Jennifer Goodman and Stacy Joy Keller.
The longest and most pretentious number on this program is "Enigma Variations," directed by David Bintley and conducted by Barry Wordsworth.
Set on the Worcestershire country estate of composer Elgar, who is waiting impatiently to hear from an important conductor, Franz Richter, whether he will conduct the world premiere of "Enigma Variations" in London in 1899. When the assenting telegram from Richter finally arrives, there is a general celebration by the large cast of Elgar's family, visiting friends and village acquaintances.
The ballet consists of vignettes introducing such characters as Elgar's wife (danced by Sylvia Jimenez), his publisher (Jonathan Payne), a young girl named Dorabella (Carol-Anne Miller), an eccentric tricyclist (David Morse), the romantically inclined Lady Mary Lygon (Asta Bazeviciute), scholarly Richard P. Arnold (Tiit Helimets) and many others stylishly portrayed in Edwardian-era costumes.
Joseph Cipolla, a U.S. dancer, is particularly sympathetic as the generous, fatherly composer, worried about his career and the welfare of his devoted wife. The whole spirit of the ballet is one of warmth and friendship played out in Julia Oman's inviting English-garden setting that could double for an Anton Chekhov play set on a country estate peopled with summer guests.
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