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The Joffrey Ballet Celebrates Ashton

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In the lengthy process of celebrating the Balanchine centennial, the most famed of the British choreographers, Frederick Ashton, whose centennial also occurred this year, was almost overlooked. Well, not quite. Lincoln Center Festival 2004 invited several companies, including the Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet, to perform Ashton's creations during July at the Metropolitan Opera House.

When Artistic Director Gerald Arpino moved the Joffrey Ballet from New York's City Center to Chicago in 1995, we recall going into a mournful state of mind. And we were not alone in feeling that the company was one of the most expansive in the world.

Under the partnership of the founders—the late Robert Joffrey and Arpino—the company had acquired a vast repertory from the beginnings of the Romantic era, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and ballets by Nijinsky, Massine, Balanchine, and de Mille. It also commissioned modern works, including those of Alvin Ailey, Jiri Kylian, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp. Gerald Arpino created ballets illustrating the counterculture of the '60s in his "Trinity" and "The Clowns," and he also produced America's first full-length rock ballet, Billboards, to the music of Prince.

The list of choreographers assembled by the Joffrey seems endless. What pleased us most of all was the fact that the company had acquired Ashton's great works and had, in fact, become the largest repository in the U.S. of Britain's most respected choreographic genius.

On July 8, the Joffrey Ballet appeared in three of Ashton's most beloved ballets: "Les Patineurs," "Monotones I and II," and "A Wedding Bouquet."

Although "Les Patineurs" is based on classical ballet, Ashton so closely applied the movements of skating to that form that although the ladies are on pointes and the men encased in soft ballet slippers, the choreography creates the illusion of dancers skating on ice. The lilting score, culled from Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera Le Prophète, is ideal accompaniment.

The dancers glide, jump, bounce, and perform virtuoso feats befitting champion skaters. In between, there are falls and an ease in rising that add humorous appeal, so that one imagines the variety generally seen in skating rinks.

"Les Patineurs" premiered in 1937, but, like numerous other Ashton creations, it's still a gem for the ages in the current staging by Cameron Basden, Mark Goldweber, and Elaine Thomas. The costume and set designs by William Chappell are luscious.

Two pas de deux, one for the two lovers, portrayed by Suzanne Lopez and Michael Levine, and one danced by April Daly and Erica Lynette Edwards, were among the highlights. Dominating the proceedings was Masayoshi Onuki, the boy in blue, in his variations and in the pas de trois, where he partnered Deanne Brown and Julianne Kepley. He combined his bravura with comic flair in his showoff tactics. At the conclusion, when he is whirling in pirouettes and the curtain goes down, it rises again and he is still spinning furiously.

Abstract ballet may not have been considered Ashton's forte. However, his "Monotones I and II," performed to the music of Erik Satie, is a model of precision and perfect line. Since the dancers are clothed in closely fitting white tights from neck to ankle, there could be no allowance made for even the minutest flaw.

On this occasion, "Monotone I," as performed by Jennifer Goodman, Calvin Kitten, and Stacy Joy Keller, and "Monotone II," as danced by Michael Levine, Valerie Robin, and Samuel Pergande, were both examples of linear perfection.

Ashton's rich sense of humor comes through glowingly in "A Wedding Bouquet," set to a score by Lord Berners. Not to worry that the accompaniment consists mainly of words by Gertrude Stein spoken by a narrator seated on stage. And best not to worry about Stein's rhetoric. Some salient and wry jabs manage to come through potently, even as a plenitude of silliness also emerges from her.

The scene is set in a French provincial wedding at the beginning of the 19th century. Mannerisms galore are seen from the start, with self-important servants cleaning and preparing the area. The guests arrive at the wedding profuse with congratulations.

From the manner in which the bridegroom hauls the bride about in a pas de deux—conducted sideways so that he never has to look at her—it isn't at all difficult to perceive that this is a marriage of convenience.

The innocent bride is oblivious to all this, as well as to the fact that there are ex-mistresses in the bridegroom's life who are present. Chief among these is the lugubrious Julia, who is perceived as an Ophelia-like character. She is accompanied by her comforting little dog, a Mexican terrier.

Among the memorable guests is Josephine, who proceeds to imbibe champagne to the extent that she flops all over the place. She is commanded by a chorus of indignant guests with the words "Josephine must leave." However, the lady is immune to criticism and goes about her merry way ignoring the taunts of the guests.

As Josephine, Deborah Dawn turned in the most hilarious drunk scene that I can ever recall seeing in a ballet.

One of the best of Stein's lines is "Josephine and Julia are excessively devoted to one another (not in any other language could this be written differently)."

Other memorable performances included the lonely Julia of Maia Wilkins, forlorn but appealing, and drawing sympathy in a performance that refrained from overstatement; Willy Shives as the reluctant but self-satisfied bridegroom; Emily Patterson, all innocence as the bride; and Heather Aagard as the capricious but comforting dog, Pepe.

Narrator Christian Holder delivered Stein's words with abundant brio and flair.

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