While most ballet casts are 100 percent human, it's not unheard of for live animals to appear onstage, providing everything from stage dressing to supporting roles. Michael Messerer's production of Don Quixote features a horse and a donkey; American Ballet Theatre's Giselle calls for two Russian wolfhounds; and Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee requires a white Shetland pony. Another Ashton masterpiece, The Two Pigeons, is well known for its animal actors. But though ballet is a highly disciplined, carefully choreographed art form, some performers are naturally more prone to flights of fancy—because they're birds.
There are few opportunities as rewarding for a dancer as having choreography created on you. Sir Anthony Dowell, former principal and then artistic director of The Royal Ballet, is one of those rare few who had the chance to originate many roles throughout his performing career. Dowell was a particular inspiration for Sir Frederick Ashton; the choreographer created many roles for him, including original choreography for the Prince in The Royal Ballet's production of Sleeping Beauty. In this variation from Act II, Dowell comments on, and demonstrates, the unique sense of self-possession that comes with performing a specially-created role.
Summertime may be slipping away, but this clip from Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream will transport you to a warm, enchanted summer evening. In this clip from an American Ballet Theater performance from 2004, Alessandra Ferri and Ethan Stiefel play Titania and Oberon, rulers of the woodland fairy realm from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream. At once regal and whimsical, the proud lovers reunite and make peace after a quarrel in this final pas de deux.
Sir Frederick Ashton first choreographed the Voices of Spring pas de deux on Royal Ballet stars Merle Park and Wayne Eagling in 1977 for a ball scene in Johann Strauss II's operetta Die Fledermaus. The lively duet is a favorite in galas and mixed bills these days, but Park and Eagling's version from this 1983 video is a spectacular, must-see combination of cheek and elegance.
We've all dreamt of it: dancing a romantic pas de deux with your real-life love interest. Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg have done it countless times as one of ballet's most beloved on- and offstage couples. In this immaculate 2003 performance with The Royal Ballet, where they were then principals, their chemistry brings magic to their roles in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella.
They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!
How would you like to see the opening night cast of Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée—yes, from 1960—perform the ballet’s ribbon pas de deux? Nadia Nerina and David Blair, former principals of The Royal Ballet, appear in this clip from a BBC broadcast filmed two years after La Fille premiered.
The video may be black and white, but if it’s possible to feel color, Nerina as Lise and Blair as Colas are giving off rose and sunshine vibes. They’re all smiles and sweetness (and soaring legs, I saw that Nerina) in this lovers’ pas de deux.
Born in South Africa to British parents, Nerina became known at The Royal for her sparkling technique. Reportedly, she did 32 consecutive entrechat six in Swan Lake, doubling Rudolf Nureyev’s 16 in Giselle a few nights before. Brilliant technician though she was, Nerina was somewhat overshadowed by Margot Fonteyn, who swerved away from her anticipated retirement to start up her partnership with Nureyev.
David Blair also had a difficult time shining next to Fonteyn and Nureyev, but he continued performing and later established himself as a respected répétiteur and coach. He and Nerina live on in memory any time a dancer emulates Colas’ charm or Lise’s candor. Happy #FlashbackFriday!
Sir Frederick Ashton created his 1980 ballet Rhapsody in honor of Elizabeth The Queen Mother (mother of Elizabeth II) for her 80th birthday. I’d say this serene, elegant pas de deux is fit for a queen—and for the strengths of its lead dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier, on whom the roles were created. In her shimmering blush-pink dress, Collier wafts across the stage, feet fluttering to the piano’s peaceful notes. With his effortless partnering and her full, graceful port de bras, it seems as if there’s no transition from floor to air. My favorite moment is when Collier ducks under each of Baryshnikov’s arms and he reacts with a barely-there embrace, eyes gazing outwards. They strike a perfect balance between dancing for themselves, for each other and for us.
Baryshnikov actually requested the commission for Rhapsody. Judging by the thriving success of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the creation and performance space he founded in New York City 25 years later, he’ll continue to be a pioneer in the arts for years to come. Lesley Collier became a widely respected coach and teacher after her retirement from the stage. Below, watch her lead Royal Ballet principals Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae in rehearsals for the sublime ballet she starred in. Happy #FlashBackFriday!
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Sarasota Ballet artistic director Iain Webb approached Tony Dyson—owner of Sir Frederick Ashton's Enigma Variations—about obtaining choreographic rights without knowing the historic 1968 ballet had only ever been performed by The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
I love Prokofiev’s somewhat dark musical compositions, his way of twisting graceful melodies in unconventional, dramatic ways. This is particularly apparent in Cinderella. Prokofiev’s sonorous score, combined with Sir Frederick Ashton’s nuanced choreography and The Royal Ballet dancers’ poetic movement, makes for true enchantment. As the Winter Fairy in Act I, principal dancer Zenaida Yanowsky perfectly embodies the season. She seems to enter on a cold, foreboding wind, chill emanating with each step. Yanowsky’s expression is fierce, almost frosty, and her limbs alternately cut the air like icicles and swirl like snow.
Yanowsky has been a principal with The Royal for 15 years. Her tall stature and laudable acting lends itself well to regal roles. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
Does the last name Yanowsky ring more than one bell? Zenaida and former Boston Ballet principal Yury Yanowsky are sister and brother. Plus, their little sister Nadia is a soloist at Dutch National Ballet. Talk about a dancing gene!
When New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay first saw The Royal Ballet's Lynn Seymour and Sir Anthony Dowell in Sir Frederick Ashton's A Month in the Country, he was “thunderstruck." Reflectively, he wrote, “I've still never seen feet so expressive or beautiful…Ms. Seymour remains my ultimate dance-actress," and that Dowell, “extended our idea of masculinity in ballet into unsurpassed poetry." Ashton adapted A Month in the Country from a 19th century Russian play of the same name. This clip features the original 1976 cast: Seymour dances the role of Natalia, an elegant housewife whose life is thrown into turmoil when she, her daughter and the maid all fall for the young tutor Beliaev, danced by Dowell.
The ballet Sylvia has undergone many reincarnations since its 1876 premier by the Paris Opéra Ballet. Some of the past two centuries' most notable choreographers—Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Mark Morris and John Neumeier—have seemed inescapably drawn to creating their own versions of this ballet, as if it was an artistic scratch they simply had to itch. In this 2005 clip, Darcey Bussell dances the title role in Ashton's revived version for The Royal Ballet.