Ballo della regina: Merrill Ashley
The Ballet Bag catch up with legendary American ballerina Merrill Ashley
This week the magnificent ladies from the cult ballet blog have kindly agreed to go behind the scenes at the ROH to watch rehearsals for Balanchine’s 1978 Ballo della regina. They spoke to the legendary American ballerina Merrill Ashley, who first danced the role. She discussed the fiendishly difficult steps and the challenges of “spotting front”.
George Balanchine’s precision piece, Ballo della regina, is part of a new triple bill which opens at the Royal Opera House on 13 May. “Ballo” is a new addition to the Company’s repertory. With elaborate patterns for the corps de ballet, demanding discipline and speed, the ballet is well-known for being a great challenge for the lead ballerina. The American Merrill Ashley is now passing on the role she created in 1977 to Royal Ballet principals Marianela Nuñez and Lauren Cuthbertson. While in town rehearsing the Company, she told us a little bit about what makes “Ballo” so special:
The Ballet Bag: How long does it take you to rehearse the Company for a 17-minute piece like Ballo della regina?
Merrill Ashley: It all depends on how many hours a day I’m allotted. Right now the Company have stage calls and complete rehearsals of Manon, Cinderella as well as their performances. So I haven’t had the whole corps de ballet everyday. I can usually teach the whole ballet if I have about five hours a day for five days. A lot of the “corps” work is very intricate and every group is doing something slightly different; different angles and steps, so all of that takes time.
TBB: This is a reputedly challenging ballet. What are the trickiest moments?
MA: For the ballerina there are some fiendishly difficult signature steps: one is jumping en pointe without plié (which would usually propel the jump) from first to second position, while turning in a circle. The other one is a very fast piqué turn opening into arabesque repeatedly; the step itself is not that hard, it’s more the tempo the dancer has to do it at… fast, fast, fast! And then there’s a very unusual pas de chat that I’ve never seen in any other ballet ever. Normally, landing en pointe from a jump might happen when you do a little hop – not a full jump in the air and a land – but here she has to do exactly that: jump in the air and land en pointe! That’s a big challenge. They’re all very new and different. And hard to do.
TBB: Were these all challenges from Balanchine to you, as in “I dare you Merrill”?
MA: Yes, he loved to challenge me and he told Peter Martins at some point, after it was choreographed, “I tried to give her things I didn’t think she could do, but she did them!” Although he did give me one or two that I actually couldn’t do!
TBB: Do you get involved choosing the casts?
MA: Oh yes. I came last October to look at the Company. As I don’t know the corps or soloists very well, Monica [Mason] gave me suggestions, guiding me as in “this person jumps well” or dancers with matching heights. I watched some ballet performances and rehearsals, but of course these ballets weren’t necessarily similar in style to what they are going to be doing in “Ballo”.
TBB: What is unique about rehearsing the Royal Ballet?
MA: Every company has their own identity. I think The Royal Ballet has such a history with the styles of Ashton and MacMillan they are more ingrained in them, as compared to other companies that don’t have that kind of foundation. I sense the dancers are used to running a certain way, adopting a “port de bras” or carriage of the arms, that is very different from what I would find in America. But they are very responsive so if I need to change something – as the structure in “Ballo” is so varied and free – I immediately see the result.
TBB: How are the principal ladies doing?
MA: They are doing really well, they are beautiful dancers. I think Marianela Nuñez just loves a challenge, she’s in Seventh Heaven! And Lauren Cuthbertson, despite being initially more measured in her approach, is beginning to feel really comfortable and looking like she’s ready.
TBB: What is it like to teach a role that was created on you?
MA: I’m always intrigued because every person brings something different or solves a problem in their own way. Sometimes I look at their way of phrasing the steps or using the arms and think “What a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that!” Because there were steps that I had trouble with too. There were always problems and I solved them the best I could. On the other hand, there are things that are second nature to me that are going to be hard habits for them to break. Like for instance, trying to “spot front” when you’re turning. When you are on a diagonal that’s very hard to do and the dancers are not used to that. But the steps don’t look right otherwise, so that’s a point I’m insisting on.
TBB: What will surprise audiences about “Ballo”?
MA: The Royal Ballet has done up until now the “cornerstone classical Balanchines”, the ones “in tutus” like Symphony in C, Jewels, Theme & Variations. “Ballo” is a very classical ballet at high speed. Virtuosic steps at full throttle; it’s a very joyful happy, uplifting ballet. The music is so full of energy, it gives you oxygen. It’s a wonderful example of Balanchine being more neoclassical and expanding his dance vocabulary. It veers away from what you think of classical ballet, with tutus and a certain formality. It is the best curtain raiser, it puts both dancers and audience members in such a good mood. Really fun and fizzy, like champagne bubbles!
Merrill Ashley - Rehearsing Ballo della regina
Ballo della regina / Live Fire Exercise / Danse à Grande Vitesse bill runs from 13 to 25 May 2011. Visit the ROH site for production information and to book tickets.
To learn more about ballet steps – visit the ROH’s Glossary.
About the Author:
The Ballet Bag is an online resource for the best of ballet around the web: performances, companies, dancers, interviews and other websites. With the aim to “Give Ballet a New Spin” and make it more accessible, editors Emilia and Linda write dance content, mashing it up with pop culture. They use social media to network with dance fans, companies, performers, writers, bloggers, etc. sharing what’s good, fun and interesting in the balletsphere.