Joan Acocella brings her literary insight to what I consider exemplary coverage of Lincoln Center?s Ashton Celebration:

?A note of charity pervades many Ashton ballets, as does charity?s frequent partner melancholy. To that combination add wit?Ashton was the funniest choreographer who ever lived?and restraint, and you have a fine bouquet of English traits, above all, the traits of the English novel, from Jane Austen down through Penelope Fitzgerald. Like those writers, Ashton used this equipment to unearth feelings that we barely knew we had but which, once he showed them to us, we realized we?d been living on our whole lives.?

She doesn?t bother scoring the ballet companies and dancers against one another, but she does look at the steps, offering this thought-provoking thesis:

?With only one exception, that of his English colleague Antony Tudor, no other major ballet choreographer began studying the art at so late an age, and I believe this had a huge effect on Ashton. In his eyes, the academic ballet was in no way old hat, something that needed to be adapted. He had waited for it, longed for it, for years. And so, in his work, the classroom steps are treated like treasured possessions. He can?t stop bringing them out, showing them to us. Temps de fl?che, double saut de basque, grand battement en cloche?They are so beautiful, we hear him thinking. Can?t he get just one more in? And he does. No old coot in ?Enigma Variations? is so busy with his pipe that he can?t perform a perfect arabesque, atop a bicycle. This is not to say that Ashton didn?t modify the Russian lexicon. He did. He cut it up, elaborated on it. But always, beaming through his personal style, we see the academic steps?isolated, precise, displayed just as themselves, for themselves.?

Acocella has an uncanny way of seeing meaning in those steps, and she?s not afraid to take her imagery into ungracious territory:

?When, in ?Cinderella,? the heroine goes to the ball and entrances the prince and his guests, she clinches her triumph by doing a grand man?ge, or circling of the stage. Around she goes, the full circuit of the space, in alternating sets of piqu? and cha?n? turns. Then she does the whole thing one more time, adding leaps. (When Alina Cojocaru uncorked this marvel in the first ?Cinderella? of the Lincoln Center series, the people around me just about fell out of their seats.) What is the dramatic function of this double circle? How does it advance the story? Well, you could say that Cinderella is showing off, charmingly, or that she is coming into her own. But I think that the passage may have a blunter meaning. Animals in the wild urinate around the perimeter of their territory to tell other animals to keep out. Cinderella may be doing something like that, just more politely. A few minutes later, when she is alone with the prince, she performs the feat again?and again she does it twice?but this time the radius is smaller. She encircles only the prince. What was a necklace becomes a ring. She?s going to marry him. She has decided.?

Several of the well-informed folks at Ballet Alert! are as glad as I am to see two dance articles in the New Yorker in the space of a month. And it seems Acocella?s recent work is finding unlikely channels of circulation: Her Balanchine Festival review, highly critical of Peter Martins, is causing a new flap in the campaign to keep New York City Ballet performing in Saratoga.

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