The opposing tensions in Sibley's dancing at a key moment in Ashton's The Dream are central to a defining performance
There are individual moments in certain roles that are always key for me, and the way a dancer executes them will always influence how I feel about their performance as a whole. In Swan Lake, it's the moment in the act two adagio when Odette signals her trust in Siegfried, sinking backwards against his arm in a slow, fateful, sighing arc (1:50). In Sleeping Beauty, it's the diagonal in the middle of the act three variation where Aurora seems to gather up her music, her happiness, the whole of the ballroom, in her arms (1:24). Tiny fragments, but – depending on the style, musicality and expression a dancer brings to them – ones that can either distill a whole chapter of meaning and emotion or look like just another move.
In Frederick Ashton's The Dream, a version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, it's the sequence with which Titania closes her quarrel with Oberon in their final pas de deux. One reason I always look for this is because I've never yet seen a ballerina to match Antoinette Sibley, the first ballerina I saw in the role and the first to dance it, way back in 1961, when she created it with Anthony Dowell. There's no performance footage that I could find on YouTube, but almost as good is this recording of Ashton rehearsing Sibley and Dowell for a TV masterclass.
Frustratingly, you don't quite get the sequence (it starts at 5:20) in full – for a few seconds it segues into Dowell coaching a younger couple. But you can still see the wonderfully unselfconscious freedom in Sibley's upper body, which gives the choreography its definitive mix of the sexy, strange, ecstatic and proud. It's crucial to the effect that the freedom in Sibley's dancing is in constant tension with her restrained elegance, her clarity of line. Because it's that tension, that pull of oppositional dynamics, out of which Ashton creates his most romantic choreography.
When a movement is pulling in two directions, it stretches out time as well as amplifying the expressive possibilities of the body; it creates room for suspense, ecstasy or turbulence. This masterclass footage comes in five parts. In the first (2:49), the sequence where Dowell is pulling Sibley forward and she is resisting, the oppositional tug creates something very sensual, anticipatory, even wild. In the second, where Ashton is asking Sibley to find a core of slowness within a rapid arm movement (3:30-4:00), it's clear that timing means everything – the difference between a poetic image and a passing step.
To watch Ashton badger Sibley over and over again to "play with the music", to free up her shoulders (part two, 8:50), is to get a glimpse of the English style that is so key not only to this ballet, but to Ashton's choreography and the historic identity of the Royal. It's a national treasure. And for those who aren't squeamish about health and safety, watching Ashton wield that cigarette is surely a masterclass in the lost art of elegant smoking.
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