For one of my courses, I’m currently writing a paper that includes some passages about Frederick Ashton’s portrayal and casting of women in his narrative ballets. For example, revivals of Marguerite and Armand (1963) have me thinking a lot about Margot Fonteyn and how Ashton made this ballet on her when she was in her mid-forties. While the character of Marguerite is not actually based on a middle-aged woman (the real life inspiration for Marguerite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Lady of the Camellias was actually in her early twenties), it remains significant that Ashton created what became a signature piece for Fonteyn at an age when ballerinas often mull over retirement. Fonteyn even performed as Marguerite well into her fifties, which was unheard of at the time and challenged norms regarding classical ballet as an ageist art form that favors youth. Furthermore, the character of Marguerite is a courtesan who renounces a life of prostitution when she falls in love with Armand—there’s something to be said for Ashton’s displays of female sexuality on the stage in unconventional ways. Story ballets are often typified by virginal maidens who are seen as the objects of desire (frequently, for the male gaze), and yet Marguerite is a woman who actively makes some choices about her sexuality.
As a result, I became more interested in looking at narrative ballets by Ashton that portrayed women outside of princess archetypes and the other obvious character from the Ashton repertory is Natalia Petrovna from A Month in the Country (1976). Ashton choreographed the main role on Lynn Seymour when she was thirty-seven and a mother of three children between two husbands, fitting for the character of Natalia who is a mother, married, and still admired by other men. Her relationships with various men and thus, her sexual desires are central to the story. As is the case in Marguerite and Armand, not only is the protagonist a woman but she is also a female character not typically shown as indulging in lusty affairs in classical ballet settings. Thus, I would go so far as to argue that Ashton was essentially romanticizing real women; while the stories in Month and Marguerite are fraught with drama, at the heart of both ballets are recognizably human women and regardless of their fates within their respective stories, these discernible figures are glorified through Ashton’s staging of female sexuality and the choreography itself. Neither role requires virtuosity or extreme athleticism, but they certainly require substance and artistry.
The value of access to both ballets as diversifiers of the ballerina’s repertory is immeasurable to my research. Luckily, several recordings of Marguerite and Armand exist in the archive, including a performance by Margot Fonteyn made for television. Unfortunately, A Month in the Country has yet to make it into the commercial market, despite being one of the Royal Ballet’s most popular works and now having entered the repertories of major companies worldwide. However, a YouTube user by the name of quillerpen graciously uploaded a recording of a BBC broadcast, starring the original cast. The user did so at a time when YouTube videos were allowed a maximum length of ten minutes, which meant that the video had to be broken into parts and somewhere in the process, there were some miscued edits and overlaps in the resulting material. After learning some basic video editing skills on FinalCut Pro (and with the help of a member of my cohort, Lexi Stilianos who is well versed in this program), I decided to try repairing the videos into one seamless file, now that YouTube has greatly increased the maximum length of time. I’m posting the resulting video here because being able to watch the ballet repeatedly with ease has improved and hastened my research process.
*My thanks to quillerpen for uploading the original videos, and my teachers and Lexi for aiding me with the editing skills.