Frederick Ashton is most frequently thought of as a maker of story ballets, such as the one-act The Dream and A Month in the Country and the full-length Sylvia and Cinderella, all of which have been performed by American Ballet Theatre. But there is another side to Ashton's genius: the pure classicist of such masterpieces as Symphonic Variations and Scnes de ballet, and at his most austere the two pas de trois of Monotones, to be danced for the first time by ABT in its Fall season.
The first of these, to Erik Satie's Trois Gymnop_dies, was created for a gala performance at the Royal Opera House in London, on March 24, 1965. It was danced by three of the Royal Ballet's purest classical dancers, Vyvyan Lorrayne, Anthony Dowell and Robert Mead, wearing white unitards with glittering belts and helmets. (The costumes were de- signed by Ashton himself.) Choreographically, the dance was built on a basic vocabulary of arabesques and attitudes. Some of the motifs repeated those in Symphonic Variations, such as the "walking on air" lift, the pirouettes finishing off-center by one of the men, the simple running with hands linked, not to mention Ashton's favorite "there you have it" gesture with upturned palms that occurs in so many of his ballets, here done one hand at a time. (Oddly enough, the signature "Fred step," an homage to his adored Anna Pavlova that he put somewhere in most of his ballets, does not appear in either Monotones.) The seamless quality of the choreography led Arlene Croce to write "the continuity of [Ashton's] line is like that of a master draftsman whose pen never leaves the paper."
The ballet was an instant success and clearly deserved a place in the repertory, but it was too short for anything but a gala program. Ashton therefore augmented it with a companion piece, another pas de trois to music of Satie, the Trois Gnossiennes, first performed a year or so later, on April 26, 1966. This time the trio was danced by two women and one man, Georgina Parkinson, Antoinette Sibley and Brian Shaw. In a contrast typical of Ashton, the new dance was "earthly" as opposed to the "celestial" feeling of the original piece, a quality reflected in the costumes, a pale green version of the other set. By the same token, even though the choreographic material is similarly based on variations of arabesque and at- titude, there is the suggestion of a more human relationship among the dancers. (Although the Gymnop_dies trio is still often performed alone, when both are danced it comes second, and although first in order of composition, it is somewhat confusingly titled Monotones II.)
The two dances are often described as "abstract," even "minimalist," but Ashton himself wrote "I think that ballets without librettos, popularly known as abstract ballets, though ap- pearing to convey nothing but the exercise of pure dancing, should have... a personal fount of emotion from which the choreography springs."
David Vaughan is the author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets (second, revised edition 1999).