The most challenging part of bringing “Apparitions” back to the stage wasn’t the choreography, but the atmosphere. Ashton’s Gothic tale is a heady but ephemeral brew, made in 1936 starring Robert Helpmann and a 16-year old Margot Fonteyn, which enacted Constant Lambert’s synopsis of a poet searching for l’amour suprême only to find death instead.
The road back to the stage was a two-year labor of love that added to the debt we already owe Iain Webb and Sarasota Ballet. Unearthing and reconstructing Ashton’s steps, Cecil Beaton’s designs, as well as the Liszt score arranged by Constant Lambert and orchestrated by Gordon Jacob, faced bumps and delays until finally the curtain rose. And yet getting a work like “Apparitions” back onstage is only the beginning of the story. Opening night felt like a dress rehearsal, with the steps there and the script missing. We only started to see the ballet the next day at the matinee when injury forced a chance pairing.
The ballet opened in the study of a manor house; with The Poet, danced by the company’s Guest Principal, Marcelo Gomes, at his desk surrounded by the tools of his trade: paper, a quill pen, a lamp, a skull . . .
He wrote fitfully, and after wadding up and tossing his scraps, he danced his frustration. The steps were slow and exposing; even Gomes looked as if he wanted to do them faster. But Ashton’s choreography is often a reflection of the dancer who created the role – here, Robert Helpmann. Helpmann was an actor who danced. These were the kind of steps, delicately placed extensions or sweeping terre à terre steps, that could be done with either great precision or great feeling. If Helpmann was an actor who could dance, Gomes is a dancer who can act. More than anything, on his first outing we saw his rich, pulled-out arabesque creating a clean perpendicular like a compass pointing.
Three visions appeared behind the Gothic windows at the back: a Monk, a Hussar and in the center a Woman in a Ball Dress. Gomes was paired with Victoria Hulland, but paradoxically connected better with Danielle Brown – and they weren’t scheduled to dance together. Gomes pinch-hit at the matinee unannounced for Ricardo Graziano, who was injured.
At this point, Hulland is a seasoned Ashton dancer, but her best work is in more decorous roles such as Lady Elgar. The woman in “Apparitions” is anything but a lady. From her first appearance in the window Brown gave Gomes more to work with; she was seductive instead of decorous. Yet even with Brown, Gomes’ actions in the first scene still felt muddled. When he picked up a knife and contemplated suicide, it seemed absurd rather than like foreshadowing, and he downed a sleeping draft as if it were Juliet’s potion. Under the influence of the drug, a series of hallucinations followed. The first was a ballroom: a genre setting that linked the ballet to, among a host of others, both Ashton’s and Balanchine’s “La Valse.”
The scene was set with nothing more than a projection of a cello and music stand on the cyclorama. Swains in military uniforms or tailcoats lined up on one side, on the other, women posed wearing massive skirts that blossomed like peonies.
Ashton treated the synopsis as suggestion rather than plot. Rather than using the ball itself to push the narrative forward, that happened tucked into little moments and gestures during a suite of dances.
The hallmarks of Ashton’s style were already there in ‘36; full épaulement when the women turned their heads all the way to one side, then all the way to the other. Fonteyn’s steps were baldly simple: single pirouettes, mincing walks on pointe and tiny jumps scooping the feet under the legs that took off and landed on pointe. Her entry in the coda was nothing more than walking on pointe across the stage, hitting a balance and going off.
She was only 16, and Ashton was early on in his career as well, but this wasn’t just the simplicity of inexperience. Ashton had already made the virtuoso “Les Rendezvous.” This seemed to be flowing from Cecchetti épaulement, schooling and strength, and also an aesthetic position on quality over quantity. Single turns aren’t easier than doubles. Brown had more trouble with the single turns although she’s a turner, because she was used to the momentum needed for multiples.
At the ball, Hulland was more of a debutante in a lovely dress, and the cynical elements of the ball – she danced with Gomes but left with the Hussar – seemed random. Brown came to the ball hiding her face with her fan as if she already knew what awaited her. She looked at us, then at Gomes, and understood that she was not a lady, but his temptation. The two of them flew around the stage in huge back bends, another Ashton hallmark.
After The Poet’s disappointment, the scene changed to another vision: a snow-clad plain in the midst of a strange ballet blanc et noir. The Belfry Spirits accosted The Poet like Balanchine’s kindred spirits in Melancholic. The costumes were striking but odd: in their black and white skirts and spiked headgear they looked like a cross between Sonic the Hedgehog and Kung Fu Panda. But one of Ashton’s most felicitous talents was for the classical set piece – and this one held not just strange, but delicately beautiful moments of unison port de bras and épaulement. The solo choreography was exposing to Gomes. Now approaching 40, he’s still a very solid technician, but there were some cracks opening night; turns to the left missed, and air turns from a wide position rather than a tight one.
In the next vision, a cross projected on the cyclorama loomed in the back, and a cortege of monks in purple marched in a lurid funeral procession. The poet approached the bier and ripped the veil off the body: it was the woman. At this point the ballet worked itself into a froth and the only way to pull it off was to dial the hysteria to 11, or maybe 12. On opening night Gomes tried mightily, but wasn’t yet able to pace the arc of his distress. The first try, it was isolated episodes of crazy, but after sleeping on it he figured out how to string the narrative together into a mental breakdown in slow-motion. Without that progression, the procession of monks looked more like the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And nobody expected that.
The scene shifted to a cavern, where male and female monks seemed to be having a Witches’ Sabbath. By this point at the second show, Gomes was wild-eyed. He swept into turns, the monks lifted him, and as they put him down, he hit the floor, pounding the stage audibly.
The final scene back in his study was his suicide, which on opening night seemed to happen because that’s where in the music it was marked that he stabbed himself. As with the rest of the ballet, a night to think about it made all the difference. Gomes had worked out a through-line of crushing despair: his writing was pointless, his beloved was no longer his vision, and so he had no further inspiration in life. When he stabbed himself, it was with contempt. As in “La Sonnambula,” his beloved reappeared to mourn, and that showed the most potent link in Gothic ballets – that death is the ultimate lover. The monks reappeared to bear The Poet’s body aloft as the curtain fell.
No ballet could have contrasted more with “Apparitions” than “Stars and Stripes.” Sarasota isn’t a Balanchine company and doesn’t need to be one – particularly as there is an excellent one on the other side of the state. It has its own validity in Balanchine by bringing its own style, and choosing pieces that work with its other repertory.
Elizabeth Sykes was sweetly musical leading the First Regiment. Katelyn May uncommonly danced both leader of the First and Second Regiments in alternate casts, perhaps as the shortest Tall Girl ever, and oddly enough she was better Tall than Short. She has accurate toned legs that look good in both Ashton and Balanchine. Samantha Benoit danced the other cast of Tall Girls and actually is tall and lanky; she sparkled in the role. Bless the corps for moving, but Tall Girls got ragged. A series of high kicks with timing like popcorn would have gotten them drummed out of a junior varsity cheerleading squad, and when they covered the stage for the final circle, some of them were doing emboîtés, a few were just running desperately.
The men’s dance had two solid leads – Ivan Duarte might come across as cute but the power he brought to the steps wasn’t cute at all. He’s got the goods. Filippo Valmorbida was cooler, but had the interesting air of being a stylist in a pyrotechnical role.
Kate Honea has great theatrical instincts, sharp timing and a strong back, but didn’t have much plié to offer, and that made her legwork look flinty in a very leggy ballet. It’s great to see Ricardo Rhodes back in Sarasota in a role he can toss off so easily that it looked as if his warm up was Tiger Balm and a hot shower.
Besides their quality, one of the things that makes masterpieces such as “Scènes de Ballet,” “The Four Temperaments,” or “Agon,” easier to revive is that abstract classical ballets require less context: their world is largely self-contained. Not so with “Apparitions.” Gothic works may be the hardest to keep alive because if the context is gone and the atmosphere is off, the whole ballet doesn’t work. That’s why “Ivesiana” or “Variations for a Door and a Sigh” have been all but dropped from repertory: we still know the steps but we don’t see the point. Yet who knows, in uncertain times, the Gothic ballet could once again reflect the world as we see it.