Three Ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Les Patineurs (arr. Constant Lambert) (1937) [27:00]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Scènes de Ballet
(1944) [22:00]
Divertissements [46:00]
Dancers of the Royal Ballet; Philip Gammon (piano); Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Paul Murphy; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 20, 23 December 2010 (Les Patineurs) and 17, 25 November 2004:
All regions; Ratio -16:9; Audio - LPCM 2.0, DTS
Subtitles (for extras): English, French, German, Spanish
OPUS ARTE OA1064D DVD [96:00 + 30:00 (extras)]
Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed a very large number of ballets and it is good to be able to welcome a disc containing not just one of the best and most popular but also a fascinating collection of occasional and otherwise forgotten pieces. That is the Divertissements. It starts with a Pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty in a version dating originally from 1968 and danced here by Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope in costume but against only a blue backcloth. I have to admit that seen like this and out of context its impact is limited although it is certainly worth reviving. I am less convinced by the two extracts from Devil’s Holiday, based on the life of Paganini and using an arrangement of some of his music. It was first produced briefly in 1939 and not revived until this reconstructions of the original choreography by Frederick Franklin who had taken part in the original production. Taken out of context however they amount to very little. Fortunately the final three sections, although also relatively brief, are each of real merit. The Massenet and Strauss date from 1971 and 1977 respectively and have real individuality. Best of all is the Brahms, to some of his piano waltzes (Op 39) played on stage by Philip Gammon and danced by Tamara Rojo. Ashton had seen Isadora Duncan dance, and although she had been past her best she had still made a big impression on him. This short ballet gives a wonderful illustration of how great that impression must have been. Probably it is the only part of Divertissements which you would want to repeat frequently, but it is so good that it makes up for any disappointment you may feel with some of the rest of this composite work.
Scènes de Ballet is typical of Ashton’s more abstract work in which movement and patterns are in constant state of flux, rather like a human kaleidoscope. According to the helpful essay by Robert Orledge, from which I have obtained much of the information in this review, Ashton had wanted to do a ballet that could be seen from any angle, one which if seen from the wings would give a different but equally good picture. A pity that the opportunity to film it in that way was not taken, but a more serious problem with this performance is the untidiness which seems to affect it especially in the early stages. It may be simply a trick of unfortunate camera angles but it did reduce my enjoyment by drawing attention to the difficulties of the ballet rather than allowing the viewer to glory in its wonderfully fluid pattern-making.
The best item on the disc is however also the most popular - Les Patineurs. I find it hard to believe that this was choreographed as long ago as 1937. Its basic idea, of the dancers appearing to be at a skating rink, may have been derived from the notorious skating ballet in the opera Le Prophète by Meyerbeer, whose music from other operas is used here. The astonishing variety of movement that this simple premise inspires from Ashton never ceases to amaze me. This is a ballet to see over and over again to appreciate not only its invention, good humour and variety but also the virtuosity of the dancers involved, not least Steven McRae in the part of the Blue Boy who ends the ballet with a seemingly endless series of pirouettes as the curtain comes down.
The “extras” on the disc consist of three short rehearsal studio films showing key parts of the ballet being rehearsed and discussed in an admirably clear manner.
Not everything on this disc is as good as Les Patineurs but it is full of good things and it is all worth seeing at least once. I suspect that I will be returning to the main work and to the Isadora Duncan piece at regular intervals.
John Sheppard 
Not everything on this disc is as good as Les Patineurs but it is full of good things and it is all worth seeing at least once.
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) The Sleeping Beauty - Awakening Pas de Deux
Vincenzo TOMMASINI (1878-1950) after Nicolò PAGANINI (1782-1840) Devil’s Holiday - Pas de deux and Variation
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Thaïs - Pas de deux
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) Voices of Spring Pas de deux