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at the Civic Opera House

March 20-22

Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations, considered by many to be the defining work of this English master, was first performed in 1946 by what is now the Royal Ballet and had never been danced by another company--until last weekend, when American Ballet Theatre unveiled its production at the Civic Opera House. Ashton dancer Michael Somes, who staged the work for ABT and oversaw the reconstruction of Sophie Federovitch's scenery and costumes, recently told Dance Magazine that "Sir Frederick was very careful about whom he allowed to do the ballet. Even at Covent Garden, if he couldn't get the right cast he didn't want it done."

The signature of this work is restraint of a most tricky and un-American kind. The glowing chartreuse backdrop is etched with widely separated swirling black lines that are both sensuous and geometric; the simple draped costumes recall Roman togas without duplicating them, as the silvery headdresses recall laurel crowns. Nothing about this ballet intrudes, no feats force themselves on our attention--it's about as far from busy as dance can get. As it opens we see six dancers standing motionless, three women in the foreground facing us and three men in the rear widely spaced to cover the entire width of the stage. The women begin dancing in unison, but only when the piano in Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra is playing alone; during the orchestral portions they remain motionless.

Symphonic Variations is purposely and almost literally low-key. Arms are often held down in undramatic first position, arabesques are performed flat-footed, leaps are low to the ground. But that low profile means that the occasional odd, abrupt movement gains tremendously in dramatic and musical impact. In the first section, as the women are dancing alone and in unison, they stand on pointe in third position, legs scissored, and abruptly pivot to switch facings--only twice, but in such perfect accord with the piano's notes that the effect is spectacular. Much later the women again punctuate the dance memorably--twirled out by their partners into a wide, stable second position, they suddenly look energetic and gleeful, almost like square dancers. In a slightly different way, when the music turns mysterious the mere detail of the women's drooping torsos gives the dance a sudden moody look completely at odds with its previous straightforwardness.

We don't realize how much we rely on even numbers and the even division of the sexes for balletic symmetry until someone like Ashton begins to play around with our expectations. During the opening we wait for the men to begin dancing--and we wait an exceptionally long time. Ashton further surprises us by introducing only one man to the dance at first, and emphasizes the sexual asymmetry by arranging the dancers in a line with their arms about each other's waists and the man in the "middle," where he must have one woman on one side and two on the other. Ashton then underlines the asymmetry by playing with the dancers' facings--one or another woman often faces a different direction than the other three dancers--and by having the women turn their heads in different directions.

It's odd and elegant the way Ashton uses this simple imbalance to create an emotional dynamic--it seems at least one woman is always left out. Later he resolves the sexual asymmetry by arranging his dancers in three couples, but the odd number of pairs creates a new imbalance: he makes it impossible to achieve the mirror effect created by an even number of couples dancing opposite each other. After establishing these subtle choreographic and emotional imbalances, Ashton suddenly resolves them: at intervals all six dancers join hands and dash into a simple democratic run.

The six ABT dancers I saw (Ethan Brown, Sandra Brown, Wes Chapman, Cynthia Harvey, Parrish Maynard, and Ashley Tuttle) didn't seem to have completely settled into Ashton's choreography. The little bit of raggedness remaining (which may well disappear soon--this was the first time ABT performed it) may be a result of the work's stillnesses and the simple ensemble dancing in small groups, both of which magnify any bobbles or differences in execution. Ashton must be deceptively difficult to master. But this soft, modest, yet uniquely confident and compelling choreography gives so much pleasure that any quibble about the performance must remain just that.

The work that preceded Symphonic Variations on this program offers an excellent example of the contrasts between English and American ballet--at least as practiced by Ashton and Clark Tippet (a former ABT dancer who died of AIDS in January). Tippet's 1987 Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 is big and bold, with a large corps and four different pairs of principal dancers. The familiar music is enlivened by many entrances and exits and by bursts of movement upward, as the women are hoisted at arm's length in all kinds of positions: sideways, upside down, kneeling and held by both thighs, toes curled, like some catlike icon. Male solos and ensemble dances show off the men's ballon. This is an intelligent and well-made dance, with choreography for the blue couple in the first movement (Claudia Alfieri and Keith Roberts) that follows the sinuous, sustained line of the violin in the score, while the red couple (Christine Dunham and Roger Van Fleteren) is given more defined phrases. And it builds cleverly to an effective climax.

But the standout, in terms of both choreography and performance, is the second movement, which featured Susan Jaffe and Ethan Brown the evening I was there. The music is slower and more expressive than in the other two movements, and Jaffe has the confidence and control to milk each adagio phrase for all it's worth. Here some of the choreography is modest and thoughtful: standing on pointe, the woman swings one leg back, forward, and in a rond de jambe; her partner quietly supports her in what could look like an exercise at the barre if it weren't so musing and musical. I found myself imagining what Jaffe could do with Ashton's choreography: the assured way she fills out the quiet portions of Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 is like the modest self-confidence of his work.

Michael Smuin's Peter and the Wolf completed the program. This confection for the children elicited a very creditable volume of squeals and giggles on opening night, considering that few kids were there. Peter and the Wolf has been in ABT's repertory since 1940, but this is a new version, graced by kid-friendly choreography and amusing costumes, set, and show-biz libretto (by Larry Gelbart, delivered on opening night by the comedy team of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert). It's facile and almost as up-to-date as the Turtles. Gil Boggs does a fine job as Peter, though his considerable talents are virtually wasted on the role. In this dance calculated to please both big and little people, the Cat (Christina Fagundes) has sinuous motions sure to captivate adults, and for the kids there's her delightfully luxuriant tail and speckled thighs; the antics of the unfortunate Duck (Kathleen Moore), who stumps around in lemon yellow flippers, are sure to please the kid in all of us. And when the Wolf (Robert Conn) leapt up from the orchestra pit, you could hear gasps all over the house.

American Ballet Theatre continues its performances, in different programs, through March 29 at the Civic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Sohl.

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