Just when Russia's great founding choreographer Marius Petipa was forcibly retired from the Imperial Ballet, his two prime successors were born within months of each other on opposite sides of the earth.
George Balanchine began life on 22 January 1904 in St Petersburg; Frederick Ashton followed on 17 September of that same year in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Both were to spend their careers far from their birthplaces; and each would initiate a distinctively national style for using the classical ballet tradition they inherited from Petipa, which is why we celebrate them now.
Balanchine was first off the mark. Son of a Georgian composer, he entered the ballet school in his home town (then just renamed Petrograd) aged ten and began making dances while still a student. Influenced by the avant-garde choreographers Fyodor Lopokov and Kasyan Goleizovsky, the Evenings of Young Ballet which he soon mounted proved too provocative for traditional taste.
So, obtaining permission in 1924 to tour with a small group to Berlin, he took the opportunity not to return to Soviet Russia. But after their initial contract he and his colleagues found it difficult to obtain work until they were accepted on audition into Diaghilev's company, not least for the sake of Balanchine's choreographic potential.
During the next five years Balanchine, still in his early 20s, made eight new ballets for Diaghilev plus several opera-ballets and shorter works. They included two of his enduring masterworks, Apollo (beginning his greatly influential collaboration with Igor Stravinsky) and The Prodigal Son.
When Diaghilev died, Balanchine, despite illness, worked briefly for the Paris Opéra Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and shows in London, also becoming a founder-choreographer of Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. But he left and, with Diaghilev's former assistant Boris Kochno, formed Les Ballets 1933 for performances that year in Paris and London with a repertory of six new ballets by him. Then the Boston-born poet, author and dance enthusiast Lincoln Kirstein persuaded him to move to America and start a new company there, an offer accepted with the fore-sighted stipulation 'But first a school'.
Kirstein thereafter was to be his constant administrative support, propagandist and fund-raiser.
By this time Frederick Ashton’s contribution to British ballet was beginning to become apparent, although family disapproval of a stage career had prevented him from beginning to train as a dancer until Balanchine was already joining Diaghilev's company. Transplanted to his family's origins in London, and initially working in an office, Ashton began studying with Leonide Massine, and was passed on to Marie Rambert. She encouraged him to stage a comic little ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion, featuring both of them, as part of a revue in Hammersmith, west London, in 1926. Thereafter he spent a year in Paris dancing with Ida Rubinstein's company where, already keen to make ballets, he taught himself a lot about how to do so from observing resident choreographer Bronislava Nijinska.
Despite various occasional attempts, neither Britain nor the USA had a permanent ballet company during Ashton's and Balanchine's early days. That remained the case in America until well after Balanchine's arrival, but in Britain both Rambert and her contemporary Ninette de Valois planned to develop companies from their pupils; moreover, the Russian Ballet's frequent seasons had built an audience who wanted a replacement when the company closed down after Diaghilev's death in 1929.
By then, de Valois was beginning to put on little ballets that supplemented operas and plays at London's Old Vic Theatre, and when the rebuilt Sadler's Wells Theatre opened under the same management in 1931 her enlarged company began regular performances, initially as the Vic-Wells Ballet. Meanwhile Rambert, after two short seasons in Hammersmith, had started the Ballet Club in its own little theatre (later named the Mercury) at Notting Hill Gate. Greatly helping both ventures was an organisation called the Camargo Society, started by two dance critics, Arnold Haskell and Francis Richardson, to bring together all available talent and present mainly new ballets to a subscription audience. During 1930-33 this made possible more frequent and more ambitious productions than would otherwise have been the case.
Besides being Rambert’s chief choreographer and artistic associate, Ashton made ballets for the Camargo and the Vic-Wells. In 1935, to benefit from de Valois' greater resources, he transferred full-time to the Wells. Thus during the decade before World War II, which saw British ballet beginning to establish itself on a serious level, Ashton was the most vital and prolific creative element in both its leading companies. Among his outstanding works from that period are Capriol Suite, Façade, Les Rendezvous, Apparitions, Les Patineurs and A Wedding Bouquet, all of which have been in the repertory of Birmingham Royal Ballet or its direct predecessor companies.
Already he had proved three of his most valuable gifts: an unusual flair for inventing pure-dance ballets, a range taking in both highly individual wit and extreme romance, and the ability to develop the qualities of his dancers, who then included Britain’s two great ballerinas, Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn.
Ashton had organisations, however raw and new-formed, within which to work; Balanchine in America was starting from scratch. Fortunately the School of American Ballet which he opened in 1934 filled a real need and thrives to this day, but his first company, The American Ballet, lasted only three years (1935-38) plus a short government sponsored wartime tour of South America. However, it did see the creation of three of Balanchine's great plotless ballets, Serenade, Concerto barocco and Ballet Imperial, besides a complete Stravinsky evening and a controversial but much discussed Orpheus and Eurydice with the Metropolitan Opera. For the rest of his first dozen years in America Balanchine's choreography was made for other people's companies (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo or American Ballet Theatre) and for Broadway musicals or Hollywood films. It was not until 1946, with Lincoln Kirstein released from war service, that they started their own company again, Ballet Society (initially a membership venture, like the Camargo), from which grew New York City Ballet, one of the world's great companies.
That same year, 1946, saw the start of the company from which Birmingham Royal Ballet is descended, initially called Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet, formed to replace the original Sadler's Wells (formerly Vic-Wells) company when it moved to Covent Garden. The new 'second company' was intended to foster young dancers and new choreographers, but drew also from the existing SWB repertory, and one of its earliest productions was Ashton's satirical Façade, with the choreographer himself dancing the lead – unmatched then or since for the subtlety with which he parodied a Latin Lover. Following his war service, Ashton found increased lyricism for the plotless ballets that had always occupied him; this was manifested at Covent Garden in what are arguably his two greatest works, Symphonic Variations andScènes de ballet (both of them since mounted for Birmingham Royal Ballet).
Between their premieres he created for the Sadler’s Wells company Valses nobles et sentimentales, a new treatment of music by Ravel which he had previously used for Rambert. This time his fluently expressive dances hinted at episodes of young love (and interestingly the first cast included two future director-choreographers, Peter Darrell and Kenneth MacMillan).
Ashton was sufficiently taken by the Company's young dancers to give them one of his most demanding virtuoso ballets, Les Rendezvous, and another early work,Capriol Suite, which relied on a mixture of vigour and quiet characterisation. He also provided, for the Company's first American tour in 1951, another creation, Two Scenes from Casse-Noisette, comprising his own stylish new choreography for the Snowflake and Kingdom of Sweets sections of The Nutcracker, with all the story deleted.
By this time, Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet (its revised name) had also acquired its first Balanchine ballet, and this was something unique: his only creation ever for a British company. New York City Ballet, making its first visit to Britain in 1950, invited Ashton to create Illuminations for its repertory, to Benjamin Britten’s music, and wanted to commission a premiere in London from a British choreographer. John Cranko, then with the Sadler’s Wells company, was recommended as the most suitable young choreographer for this. In return, Balanchine produced his Ballet Imperial at Covent Garden and created Trumpet Concerto for Sadler’s Wells. It showed off the company’s six best Principals in a neat, crisp set of entries with a military swagger, and the choreographer presented each of them, at the premiere, with a medal he had made himself.
It was another decade before Ashton's next creation at Sadler's Wells, but meanwhile he allowed the company (by now part of the Royal Ballet organisation) two further contrasted old works, the ebullient and demanding Les Patineurs and the romantic dance drama Apparitions.
Then in 1961, with The Two Pigeons, he gave new life to Messager's attractive but long neglected ballet score besides devising great roles for a young cast within his own adaptation (and considerable improvement) of the original plot, combining robust comedy and touching sentiment, as still to be seen in Birmingham Royal Ballet's current programmes. About that time the company also undertook three of Ashton's full-evening ballets: La Fille mal gardée, which entered the permanent repertory, and both Cinderella and Sylvia borrowing the Covent Garden productions during seasons there while the resident company was on tour.
Ashton insisted that he regarded the two Royal companies as equal but complementary rather than similar. Although both based on the classical ideals and vocabulary, he saw the one at Covent Garden as aiming at stylistic perfection, while the one from Sadler's Wells which did most of the touring put emphasis more on the liveliness of its performances, although with no neglect of technical standards.
Those qualities were reflected in the four works added to the second company’s repertory while Ashton was director (1963-70) following de Valois’ retirement. The specially created Sinfonietta was a plotless display piece, and Monotones a more austere display of pure dance.
The Dream, on the other hand, illustrated his Shakespearean gift for revealing characters and telling stories, and finally, requested by the city of Bonn to mark Beethoven’s bicentenary, came The Creatures of Prometheus, in which German audiences understood the dry wit of Ashton’s treatment better than those in London. (His jokes included making Mars suggest a bedraggled Napoleon, while his Terpsichore had overtones of de Valois.)
When Ashton was – prematurely, we may think – removed from the directorate, there followed a disastrously misconceived period when the company was replaced by a small 'New Group' touring a preponderance of experimental new ballets. Compensating factors included putting on Ashton's Symphonic Variationsand Balanchine's Apollo, even if not really well enough danced.
Another Ashton revival, A Wedding Bouquet with its surrealist humour, helped mark the resumption of former policies and standards, and several more Balanchine ballets were introduced, all from the NYCB repertory. There is a myth that Balanchine was not interested in ballets with a plot, but reading through the complete list of his works soon proves that false.
However, the high number and supremacy of his pure dance classics (a genre in which only Ashton could compete), and his invention of a neoclassic style, explains why companies worldwide wanted revivals of them. The pre-Birmingham Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet was no exception, with its productions of his Allegro brillante, Four Temperaments and Concerto barocco in the 1970s, Tchaikovsky pas de deuxand Theme and Variations in the 80s: all of them ballets to show the dancers' skills and musicality. Among them however was a contrast, the highly dramatic Prodigal Son. These did more for the Company than an unsuccessful attempt in 1982 to transfer Ashton’s film ballet Pas de Légumes to the stage.
Since the Company moved its base to Birmingham in 1990, it can be proud of the works by those two great choreographers which it has preserved. The justification for that care was amply demonstrated by the virtues (uniformly high in standard but rewardingly varied in style) of three more Balanchine ballets mounted in Birmingham: the touchingly detailed Mozartiana, the swirling invention and emotional implications of Serenade, and the exhilarating fun of Western Symphony.
Even more impressive are Birmingham Royal Ballet’s recent Ashton achievements. Besides mounting his Elgar evocation Enigma Variations and some smaller works, the Company’s seasons of his life-affirming comedies The Two Pigeons and La Fille mal gardée attracted admiring visitors from as far away as America. Likewise Birmingham Royal Ballet’s restoration of Ashton's great tragic dance-poem Dante Sonata, a unique manifestation of ballet’s potential, created in 1940 to immense success but, until this superb revival, not given since 1951. Now a new generation sees for itself one of British ballet’s most moving achievements. From a Company that sees its prime purpose as an unusual emphasis on making new work, this care also for the greats of the past is pretty impressive.