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Frederick Ashton (1904-88) is probably the most significant British ballet master ever. It was Ashton who was at the choreographic helm of the Sadler's Wells Ballet when, in 1956, it became the Royal Ballet. It was Ashton who directed the Royal Ballet through its "golden age," from 1963 to his retirement in 1970. And it was Ashton who brought Margot Fonteyn to international ballet stardom.
And yet, Charlotte dancegoers could frequent dance concerts for years without ever encountering a work by the renowned choreographer. North Carolina Dance Theatre does not include Ashton in its repertoire. This weekend, however, offered that rare and delightful opportunity in CPCC Dance Theatre's production of "Winter Dreams" at Pease Auditorium at Central Piedmont Community College.
"Winter Dreams" opened with an excerpt from The Nutcracker, with choreography by CPCC program director Katharyn Horne, followed by a contemporary piece called Encircled, set to music by Beyoncé. But the centerpiece of the program was Ashton's Les Patineurs (The Skaters), which Horne danced when she was a ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre.
Horne's graceful Snowflake sequence and stately Snow Queen and King pas de deux from The Nutcracker, with numerous sustained lifts and extensions, proved somewhat challenging for the dancers, all of whom study dance at the community college. But the swift and charming choreography in Les Patineurs (restaged by Horne, with a few alterations) was well-suited to the dancers, who fully embraced the work's lighthearted mood and movement.
Not many ballets encourage the dancers to fall on their derrières, but you can't depict a lively ice skating party without a few slips and flops. That doesn't mean that the choreography isn't rigorous. Ashton was famous for his strict regard for proper "classroom" ballet. He also had a gift for the comic, and there were plenty of moments when the audience laughed out loud at the antics of the dancer-skaters.
Grayland Counts as The Green Boy, in particular, elicited cheers and chuckles from the house. The role is famously showy – Baryshnikov caused a sensation in the part in his first seasons with American Ballet Theatre in the '70s. Counts danced the role with bravado, "skating" onstage to prance and leap and present himself to the audience with a gleeful grin. It is often difficult for academic and community-based dance programs to attract male dancers, but CPCC has an unusually fine collection.
Les Patineurs premiered in 1937, with a cast that included Fonteyn, and though the Victorian era had passed, the piece looked back on it fondly. The music, chosen and arranged by Constant Lambert (who was music director at the ballet company), comes from two operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer, Le Prophète and L' Étoile du Nord. From these rather unlikely sources, Lambert created a cheery score, dominated by waltzes that evoke glittering Victorian parties. While not as ornate as the original costumes by Ashton's longtime collaborator William Chappell, those created for CPCC by Kristine Fisher and Sondra Stroupe were lovely – Currier and Ives-inspired creations in rich cranberry and gold or frothy pinks, blues and greens.
Kudos to CPCC Dance Theatre for bringing this enchanting and rightfully famous work to a Charlotte stage. Like the ubiquitous Nutcracker, it could become a welcome holiday tradition.
These performances continue through December 8. For details, see the sidebar.