Ashton, Balanchine, MacMillan and Forsythe: Ballet Would Not Be the Same Without Them

Dance may well be the medium of expression most closely attuned to the psychology of the performer. Unlike the actor who must consider the emotions of the part above all else, the dancer uses her body to convey the deepest feelings of the character. The choreographer, in turn, plays a larger part in expressing that psychology than a film or theatrical director because it is he who literally choreographs the movements. Since movement is feeling, since movement is emotion and since emotion is but a physical expression of psychological longing, the choreographer can be viewed as the medium through which the psychology of the dance piece is transmitted. The paradoxical nature of ballet is that choreographers have been primarily male while the leading figures of the transmission of their psychological motivations are female.

Choreography for Frederick Ashton was a psychological outlet for dealing with deep seated anxieties. Frederick Ashton was never the great dancer he desperately wanted and hoped to be. It was not his destiny to become the kind of virtuoso dancer that he desired and dreamed to be, but he possessed a great talent for mimicking the abilities of others as a passage through which to teach. Frederick Ashton was able as a choreographer to do that which many teachers deeply need but often fail: to transmit the images of what he wanted that swirled about inside his head into bodily form. He had seen many great ballerinas and was strangely gifted in being able to mimic their graceful movement so that the ballerinas he was choreographing could visualize what was being demanded.

This method of choreography suited him well, both professionally and emotionally. Frederick Ashton actually would say when mimicking these great ballerina movements that he should have been a ballerina himself. It must be noted that many of the great male choreographers were held in high esteem for the way in which could themselves dance female roles. George Balanchine’s wife, Maria Tallchief, noted that he was capable of dancing classic female roles as well or better than she. There is a not particularly subtle difference in the psychological nakedness being expressed by these two men, however. Balanchine may well have been capable of dancing a female role as well as his wife, possibly even as capable of dancing it better than Frederick Ashton-probably, in fact-but Balanchine stopped with the dancing. His ability to cross gender was an expression of technique; for Ashton it went far deeper than that. His approximation of the feminine was an expression of profound mental connection to the feminine abstract buried within him. This mental connection of Frederick Ashton did not end there, of course, he exemplified his psychological anguish through sublimation as a choreographer, but also through more over expressions.

Frederick Ashton actually did dance female roles; many times giving legendary performances. For instance, he performed as the Ugly Sister; he also posed before the camera in women’s clothing, portraying himself as, quite literally, a Queen. This leaning toward the drag artist buried within him not-withstanding, he also danced well in many male roles, of course. As part of his deep psychological confusion, Ashton turned both inward and outward; he may have felt comfortable dressing up as a woman for the camera and he may have been comfortable mimicking ballerinas, but it was his choreography of the women that gave him expression.

He reached great heights in his ability to fashion and transform his inner complexities by way of transmission through the talents of ballerinas. Margot Fonteyn was particularly useful for him, collaborating on a variety of intensely romantic ballads. It may be a testament to Frederick Ashton’s penetrating insight into the female psyche that he refused to mandate that Margot Fonteyn’s spectacular talent be limited to the merely romantic; through Frederick Ashton’s force of will he was able to present her to the world as everything from an exposed naïf to untouchable spirit. Margot Fonteyn became a searing revelation of talent at the same time that she was a revelation to Ashton of the difficulties within himself.

The dancing of Margot Fonteyn and later dancers under the tutelage of Ashton-including Antoinette Sibley-could light a fire on the stage with their primal forces and often conflicting or paradoxical emotions. This paradox may well have been attributable to the paradox of their choreographer; a man able to dance as well as a woman, but not virtuoso enough himself to be the next Nijinsky.

For a man who knew he could never be Nijinsky but must be expected to choreograph romantic love stories between men and women while desiring to be a woman-or at least a ballerina-the concept of staging sex on stage must have been troubling. Frederick Ashton choreographed several erotically charged ballets beginning in the late 1940s and began a shift toward a new style of presenting the female form. In ballets such as Don Juan and The Illumuninations, Frederick Ashton seemed to be engaged in a profound struggle between the sacred and the profane. Of course, both subjects could only have treated as such since both subjects deal with the battle between the flesh and the spirit. But it is certainly interesting that it was Ashton who chose to consciously attack both these great works. The struggle expressed in those two works finally achieved ecstatic ejaculation with Daphnis and Cloe, considered by many to be one of the most sexually explicit dances at least to that point in time.

The effect of this period was to provide Frederick Ashton with a means for portraying his own internal sexual struggle with the ballerina as his muse, his medium. Frederick Ashton uses the sexuality of the female form to point out the intense eroticism of love on stage. It is a lie, of course, and even perhaps somewhat dishonest; a more honest representation would be for Ashton to present his innermost erotic longings in the form of two men. But even if it is a lie, it is only slightly dishonest, because it must be considered that the female is Ashton; the ballerina is the representation of the choreographer. What may be more dishonest is Frederick Ashton’s use of the female body, turning it literally into the object of sexuality that any ballerina’s body must become if only due to movement and design. It is quite simply impossible for any heterosexual man to look at a ballerina in her form-fitting outfit and not be aroused, but when Frederick Ashton makes the arousal the exclamation point of the piece, it is all the more difficult to turn away and deny. How can Ashton be the choreographer if he possesses not the form of the sexual beast he is exploiting?

One need look no further than the choreography of George Balanchine and how it compares to Ashton for at least a hint to the answer to that question. The differences between Balanchine and Ashton stand in stark relief. Frederick Ashton was, of course, homosexual and his homosexuality informs his treatment of the female form and the female dancer. George Balanchine was heterosexual and likewise that sexuality informs his treatment. Yet both were supremely interested in exploiting the female form as they approach ballet, though clearly this exploitation arrived from and was expressed in differing perspectives.

It is not enough to say that George Balanchine turned his ballerinas into sex objects and Ashton turned his into feminine representations of his own psychological view of himself. Both statements are correct, but both statements miss the point. Ashton focused his attention on the female anatomy above the waistline, while Balanchine’s dancers showed strength in their legs. But the legs are the center of strength for the dancer, it is where all lessons and thought begins. The torso and the upper arms are the site where a dancer can-if necessary-cheat. Well, perhaps, not cheat necessarily but finesse. Balanchine was a natural dancer; he could possibly have been, if not the next Nijinsky, then certainly the great dancer that Ashton could not.

Frederick Ashton, forced to compromise and finesse his talents and desires by sublimating it into choreography would naturally be drawn to the upper strength of women. That is where lies the possibilities for compensation; compensation for either a lack of natural talent or a lack of femininity. Ashton clearly could think and even dance like a woman, but he most certainly could not look like a woman. Balanchine didn’t have this problem; his focus was on the leg strength, a strength which mirrored his own.

George Balanchine could well afford to push the envelope and even break established rules. He could upend his women, push them off from the heel, and fly them tortuously through the air because he himself could do that. Ashton could not have his dancers do what he could not show them obviously, but Balanchine had no such problems. Balanchine’s ballet were forceful, magnetic; his dancers whirling like dervishes caught up in a sexual maelstrom, giving themselves over to passions. Balanchine himself was the passion; sexuality burns from outside. But only from the outside; Balanchine never offers the penetrating glimpse into the interior of the feminine psyche that Ashton does.

Ashton’s classical legacy might be best expressed in the work of Kenneth MacMillan. MacMillan retained much of the classic form and artistry of Frederick Ashton, especially in the way of footwork and a reliance on épaulement. Of course, Kenneth MacMillan does equate exactly along the lines of Ashton; he certainly eschewed Ashton’s propensity for dressing up as a woman, but more importantly he also eschewed the trappings of Ashton. MacMillan’s choreography flatly denies the dependency upon flights of romantic fancy with which Ashton relied upon. Interestingly, however, many of his greatest ballets were built upon great romances of history and literature.

The most striking difference between Kenneth MacMillan and the others may his choice of a troika-based characterization, in which one ballerina is quite obviously cast off from the rest of the company. The effect could be comedic, though usually it was merely comical, a subtle difference that MacMillan quite obviously realize and utilized. This element is regrettably missing from what is often considered his peak of achievement, those with the Stuttgart company, where he made lasting impressions with his landmark staging of such works as Song of the Earth and Anastasia. And yet there are many who view these works as essentially secondary that to those he worked on at the Royal Ballet. Most assuredly this is due to the quirkiness that MacMillan exhibits when working with smaller groups of dancers. His style cries out for the intimate and he clearly is in his element when at most there are only three dancers working out his story. MacMillan’s genius is not to find the strength in the dancing that Balanchine does or to understand his ballerinas on an almost subconscious level like Ashton; rather MacMillan is almost like a theater director, finding the insight into his dancers to bring about actual performance.

If George Balanchine’s method of introducing a sexual maelstrom on state is by nearly forcing his will upon his ballerinas, then Kenneth MacMillan’s genius might be said to open up the possibilities for interpretation. This is hardly to suggest that a MacMillan ballet is tantamount to interpretative dance-far from it-but rather than holding a figurative gun to the heads of his dancers in the form of sheer force of personality ala Balanchine, MacMillan seems to be the opposite. His method looks for dominating personalities, for dancers with a little bit of Balanchine within them, and he considers his job to bring that out to the fore, while working like a sculptor to mold that personality to the role.

This may be the reason that dancers such as Lynn Seymour and Marcia Haydee discovered fame as a member of MacMillan’s company. MacMillan intuitively understand the deep recesses of talent within strong dancers such as these and they in turn thrive under his tutelage and his repertory approach. Of course, this same method brings with it a dark side; a non-dominant personality may be underutilized. This, of course, is quite interesting from a psychological point of view. Early in his career, MacMillan staged a series of ballets with the odd duck, the dancer on the stage but left out. Later, as his power grew, the situation was perhaps all-too-often eerily played out in real life with a talent who maybe didn’t interest MacMillan or who wasn’t possessed of enough flair of personality to be left behind and not allowed to flourish.

A familiar term springs instantly to mind when considering this situation: unsuitable. MacMillan’s dependence-his utter joy-upon finding a dancer who inspired his trust and whom he returned the favor toward by granting favor was reversed with the mirror effect of deeming a ballerina unsuitable when she failed to rise to expectations. The process by which Kenneth MacMillan bestowed favor upon his ballerinas suggests a man looking for something inside them; perhaps a psychological yearning for a dominant figure. It may be too overreaching to introduce into the discussion anything as facile as the suggestion of Oedipal drive behind MacMillan’s relationship with women, but his dynamic for developing close relationships with a small number of dancers led to a problem following his death. The Royal Ballet was left with a small number of esteemed dancers in the wake of his passing due to his propensity for seeking out the few dancers uniquely suited to meet his needs. The Royal Ballet has publicly suffered as a result of this method of MacMillan’s, though it may be too early to consider whether it be truly madness or genius. If those who have followed him have been unable to reproduce his success with the same dancers, the question that must surely be raised is why? It has not been for lack of talent-everyone from Forsythe to Tharp has given it a shot-but so far none have come close to following in MacMillan’s footsteps. Perhaps it is possible that obsessive devotion to understanding a select group of dancers and bringing out the Balanchine within them is better than enforcing a Balanchine upon them.

William Forsythe foresaw the same predicament, despite beginning his career with what he himself referred to were imitations of Balanchine. Growing up at a period in which he did, it would be impossible, of course, for Forsythe to avoid Balanchine and it is a testament to his intelligence that he saw the quickest route to stamping his own personality was to embrace the master rather than run away at a point in his development where running away from Balanchine would be tantamount to running away from school.

Just as running away from Balanchine would have been counterproductive, so would denying the standard mode of latter day twentieth-century expression in any artistic medium, postmodernism. It is never enough to simply say that an artist is a postmodernist, of course; one almost cannot help but be one today. Forsythe doesn’t run from the description, nor does he revel in it; he recognizes it is inescapable and he corrects views that what others term “breaking the rules” is really nothing so revolutionary as simple deconstructionism. If Forsythe’s revolutionary choreography is about anything-as Balanchine’s was about sexual energy and MacMillan’s about interaction-it is about questioning the entire concept of tradition.

This thrusting of his metaphorical chin in the face of centuries of tradition extends to his genderless bias. That is to say Forsythe states flatly ballet doesn’t contain gender; male and female are the same. Clearly this isn’t meant to say that all female parts should be played by Ashton wannabes looking to get in touch with their feminine sides in an attempt to deal with profound psychological difficulties; it’s merely a method for dealing with the prismatic breakdown of traditional stereotypes. Forsythe in some ways is as groundbreaking as Balanchine ever was; maybe even more so because Forsythe must deal with a universe in which ballet is becoming increasingly isolated and elitist. The traditional youth audience that has replaced those generations dying off has disappeared; ballet must become at once both more avant-garde to appeal to the traditional audience while moving backward toward tradition so as not to alienated an already alienated subculture. Balanchine never had to deal with that kind disappearing audience. Forsythe has stepped up to the plate swinging and so has managed to avoid the strikeout endemic to so many contemporaries.