Is this ballet for you?
Go if: For the past few years you have overdosed on too many Nutcrackers and would like to see something different. You are dreaming of a White Christmas, sleigh bells in the snow, etc.
Skip if: Cute and/or nostalgic Edwardian Christmases are not your thing.
British ballet owes a huge debt to Sir Frederick Ashton, one of its most important choreographers and a big advocate of classical tradition. Ashton was born in Ecuador in 1904 and grew up in Peru where his father was in the diplomatic service. He became spellbound by classical ballet after seeing Anna Pavlova on tour in 1917. Upon arriving in Britain he started training as a dancer but shortly thereafter, encouraged by Marie Rambert, he turned to choreography.
Despite his late start Ashton’s professional aspirations in dance led him to admire and embrace classical tradition in ballet. He once opined: “The idea so often expressed that classical technique is hampering to artistic expression is erroneous and misleading”. Upholding the Petipa heritage he developed his own style, which combined academically unorthodox movements with classical ballet, and created a vast repertoire for the budding British ballet company which would soon become The Royal Ballet.
Ashton was Balanchine‘s contemporary but while Mr. B – another classicist who admired the beauty of dance – opted for abstration and minimalism Ashton approached it from a different perspective. Rather than reduce ballet to bare essentials he tried to convey warm feelings and an idealised image of the world, often focusing on narrative. All of these qualities are evident in Les Patineurs, one of his earlier works.
In Les Patineurs we can see Ashton’s beautiful world at play: scenes commonly found in an ice-rink over Christmas season, with couples romantically skating hand in hand, the bravura teen dazzling the crowd with his daredevilish spins, beginners clinging onto whatever is in front of them to avoid the humiliation of falling on ice. All of these moments are wrapped up in gorgeous 1930’s scenery and Edwardian fur-trimmed outfits.
The inspiration for Les Patineurs came from composer Constant Lambert. Lambert admired Giacomo Meyerbeer‘s opera Le Prophète which featured a short comic relief sequence with dancers on roller skates. He reorchestrated the piece and showed it to Ashton who set to choreograph a new ballet which preserved the lighthearted nature of the original work.
The result was a 27-minute long plotless yet accessible ballet, with choreography that makes the dancers look like they are ice skating and scenes familiar to anyone who has ever been to an ice rink. It is an ideal work for first timers and balletomanes alike, especially for those keen on observing early Ashton. The ballet demands a supple upper body to cope with the fluidity of movement combined with fast footwork for the lower body. The result should look easy and simple, even if the movement’s fundamentals are demanding, as in the duet for the two Red Girls.
Les Patineurs follows a classical structure of divertissements, virtuoso variation, a central pas de deux and ensemble pieces that form a complete whole. Each character has a specific role with various social interactions taking place at the ice rink, with an overall mood of sophistication, enchantment and wonder.
Around the World
Les Patineurs has been staged by many ballet companies and grew extremely popular in the US where it was performed by American Ballet Theatre and The Joffrey, both versions having been telecast in the 70’s. ABT’s production boasted designs by the great Cecil Beaton, with forest green instead of blue for the virtuoso soloist’s costume. More recently, it has been added to Sarasota Ballet’s repertoire.
The music for Les Patineurs was arranged by Constant Lambert who orchestrated different selections from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete together with the aria “Bel Cavalier” from L’Etoile du Nord.
Entrée and Pas de Huit
Variation (blue boy/skater)
Pas de Deux (white couple/the lovers)
Pas de Trois
Pas de Patineuses
Original Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Giacomo Meyerbeer (selections from the operas Le Prophete and L’Etoile du nord). Arranged and orchestrated by Constant Lambert.
Original Designs: William Chappell
Original Premiere: 16 February 1937. Vic-Wells Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.
Original Cast: Mary Honer, Elizabeth Miller, Harold Turner, Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Pamela May, June Brae.
Sources and Further Information
- Dancing Ashton by David Vaughan. Dance Magazine, July 2004 [link]
- ROH Entry for Les Patineurs, A Short ballet with music by Meyerbeer. [link]
- Frederick Ashton and His Ballets by David Vaughan. Ashton Archive, 2004. [link]
- A Spinning, Twisting Tribute to Ashton, With Skaters and Pigeons by Alistair Macaulay. Dance Review. New York Times, December, 2008. [link]
- Sarasota Ballet entry for Les Patineurs. [link]
- Ballet: A stylist Joffrey Patineurs by Anna Kisselgoff. Dance Review, New York Times, January, 1983. [link]
- Frederick Ashton by John Percival. ROH Programme Notes for Les Patineurs/Tales of Beatrix Potter, December 2007.