Sir Frederick Ashton returns to The Australian Ballet

One of the most exhilarating weekends of The Australian Ballet’s 60th anniversary year took place on November 10th and 11th at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. The program comprised two contrasting ballets by the most influential English choreographer of his generation, Frederick Ashton—Marguerite and Armand (1963), a 35-minute reduction of Alexandre Dumas fils’ Romantic novel La Dame aux Camélias and The Dream, a 40-minute reduction of Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In these ballets, as in all his work, Ashton drew on ideas learned from such iconic figures as Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Léonide Massine, Marie Rambert, Bronislava Nijinska, and ballet maestro Enrico Cecchetti, among others of the Ballets Russes era and London’s Bloomsbury circles.

Sharing a theme of the turbulence of love, each ballet reveals opposite aesthetics, dramaturgy, and scale, and a deep integration of dance with the music scores which Ashton memorised to anchor his choreography. Totally untrained in music, his innate appreciation of it was central to his craft—he rarely knew what he would create until he met his dancers. Instead, he asked them for ideas, to play with steps and phrases, adopting a spontaneous, improvisational practice—which was often nerve-racking to Ashton and the dancers.

For Marguerite & Armand Ashton chose Franz Liszt’s commanding Piano Sonata in B minor. It is a tormented score in multiple moods alternating with long, soft statements that could be heard as an apotheosis in advance of death. Marguerite and Armand was made in fifteen rehearsals; the music’s orchestration changed three times, the last by Australian-born conductor Dudley Simpson. As for a libretto, Ashton, his music arranger John Lanchbery, and Smith wrote their own sketches, from which Ashton took the best ideas. His archivist, David Vaugh, notes that Ashton did his own research too, cleverly discovering that Dumas’s novel was autobiographical—he was the lover of Marie Duplessis, a courtesan who died young, as was Liszt for a time.

Ashton created this ballet to celebrate his protégé and muse, Margot Fonteyn, then close to retiring. She had danced more than thirty of his ballets in as many years. But Fonteyn encountered the young Rudolf Nureyev, who would become her years-long partner after his defection from the Soviet Union in 1961. 

For Ashton, the gap in their ages was perfect for the sophisticated courtesan and her impetuous young lover. The scene in which Armand first races into Marguerite’s salon inspired Nureyev’s instinctive reaction to Liszt’s music, without prompting from Ashton, who told a critic, ‘… he started stripping off his coat and things, and just at the right moment he flew out from behind me into Margot’s arms; it was wonderful.’ If Ashton was not entirely happy with this ballet, he believed that it liberated Fonteyn from her innate dignity to bloom all over again.

In contrast, The Dream was informed by Charles and Mary Lamb’s summary books, Tales from Shakespeare (1807), not the play. Ashton’s music collaborator, John Lanchbery, discovered that Mendelssohn overwrote his incidental music for play staging in 1842, so he could write bridges between existing material and Mendelssohn’s precocious Overture of 1824, without compromise.

Ashton ballets have had a significant value amongst dancers and balletomanes since The Australian Ballet’s founder, Peggy van Praagh introduced them in the early years, although very few works have entered in the company’s repertoire. So it was very important that this season should succeed, as indeed it did, with international repetiteurs on hand.

On opening night versatile modernist principal Amy Harris danced Marguerite, who leaves a duke to live in the country with a young admirer, Armand, played by senior artist Nathan Brook. Seen first lying on a chaise longue, slowly dying, she re-imagines the fluctuating beauties and torments of her life. We next see her in a sparsely framed space entertaining young men and being blatantly courted by Armand. She dances with him until the Duke draws her away, but Marguerite throws her camellia over her shoulder and Armand claims it, and her.

Their adoration and rapturous dancing in the country house are soon stopped. While Armand is out riding, his father played by the immaculately calm Timothy Coleman, appears to command Marguerite to break the liaison and protect the honour of his family. In time, Armand storms into the duke’s house. In a long, harrowing scene he throws Marguerite to the floor and rips the Duke’s jewels from her neck, then throws money at her, as if for a street prostitute, knowing nothing of his father’s interference, nor that Marguerite is dying of tuberculosis. His father arrives and shames him as the duke and his blank-faced guests leave Marguerite coughing on the floor. The father reunites the lovers and leaves them to indulge in wild rhapsodic dances until the inflamed Marguerite falls to her death.

The music for the first of the couple’s dances began slowly that evening, and a sudden cast change, via Covid, may have made Brook somewhat nervous. Even so, both artists worked hard and elegantly in their roles to win long and cheery applause. Barry Wordsworth, The Royal Ballet principal guest conductor, led the Opera Australia Orchestra and gifted American pianist Andrew Dunlop, TAB’s new music director.

The following evening Robyn Hendricks, another admired principal ballerina came to Marguerite with dignified sensibility and luminous passion. Dancing with principal Joseph Caley, who was born into the British and Ashton traditions, was a very different experience. Both orchestra and pianist rose to their peaks from the first scene, fitting Ashton’s expectations beautifully. With confidence in Caley’s strength and vitality, Hendricks gave one of the best performances of her career, and like Fonteyn, overrode her natural restraint to glow right to the end, when thrust into the air, she slid like silver light down Armand’s body to her death. A perfect performance from both!

On November 24th Harris made gave her final performance as a company ballerina to retire, stirring the audience into tumultuous cheering, laughter and tears and illustrious line up of colleagues of people who valued her highly.  

The Dream

On opening night three dazzling principals launched into The Dream—Ako Kondo and Chenwu Guo as Titania and Oberon, and Brett Chynoweth as the wickedly cheeky Puck. The corps de ballet fairies flitted across the stage like stalking Amazons to protect Titania and the Indian infant boy Oberon tries to steal from her, the scene that establishes the narrative. Soon after, the bumbling trouper Bottom was magically turned into a donkey dancing in pointe shoes, then became Titania’s new love through the conniving games Oberon and Puck played. They used these again to upend the affairs of two couples of human lovers who dance the ballet’s funniest mime scenes, after Bottom’s solos and his pas de deux with the charmed Titania. Wordsworth led the orchestra again with the comfort of history in Ashton’s opus until the last note when the house erupted again.

On the 11th Chynoweth switched from Puck to Oberon, with charming soloist Yuumi Yamada as Titania, and vibrant senior artist, Marcus Morelli, as Puck. This was an even finer performance to delight the house, finely played in the pit and on stage which Chynoweth led with ease and glamourous arrogance, until the most radiant moment, the beautiful reconciliation pas de deux which ends the ballet. This too was a perfect performance thanks to all the artists’ dedication and evident satisfaction.

The Impact of The Dream

Casting The Dream in 1964 Ashton made two decisions that would change the temper of The Royal Ballet. His Titania was the exquisite Antionette Sibley, almost at principal status, and his Oberon the tall, handsome, and equally gifted Anthony Dowell. Together they, like their first created ballet, became the new darlings of London’s ballet crowd, and soon after the world’s. Even today they remain icons to dancers, choreographers and teachers alike.

From age five Brett Chynoweth has been an investigative student of the dance, capable of astonishing feats, with wide-open eyes and face that automatically attract audiences to him. For him, as for all dancers, technique must eventually give more space for expression through mime, acting, and engaging with everyone on stage.

He has gained much from international studies and scholarships and imbibed Ashton’s dominant aesthetic of classicism as a guest artist of The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and from the comprehensive European repertoire of Dutch National Ballet. All of this has expanded his potential as a stylish and communicative artist, especially when flinging his body into the air in Rubies in Balanchine’s Jewels, comically, playfully and always classy.

Since being promoted to principal in 2018 Chynoweth has grown deeper in expression and instinctively built what American chorographer Glen Tetley believed all dancers must do, to ‘create a loop’ with their audiences. Since the arrival of The Australian Ballet’s Artist Director David Hallberg, Chynoweth’s sensibility has grown through a rapidly changing repertoire of international, contemporary, and modern classics such as Kunstkamer, Jewels, Harlequinade, The Obsidian Tear, and Nureyev’s Don Quixote, and before these a raft of classics and some forgettable failed works.

The Dream has been a great gift to Chynoweth and in turn to his audiences and the company. He is still at a point where we can expect him to broaden his aesthetic and expression, and to move and dazzle us in more challenging and fulfilling creations.


Book list

Jack Anderson, Choreography Observed, University of Iowa University Press, Iowa City, 1987

Meredith Daneman, Margot Fonteyn, Viking Penguin, 2004

Leslie Edwards with Graham Bowles, In Good CompanySixty Years with The Royal Ballet, Dance Books Ltd, Alton, Hampshire, 2003

David Vaughn, Frederick Ashton and his Ballets, revised edition, Dance Books Ltd, London, 1999


All photos courtesy of The Australian Ballet