, November 2010
Frederick Ashton prepared a dance treatment of several tales by writer-illustrator Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) for a short 1971 film. Ashton later revised and expanded it for a lavish stage production, and what we have here is a video of a 2008 stage performance. (Peter Rabbit, oddly, plays almost no role in the action.) The score, of Victorian/Edwardian shape and sentiment, is by John Lanchberry, who orchestrated and reworked popular tunes from the late 19th century; the melodic inspiration for that reason is rather thin (but no worse than scores by the likes of Pugni or Minkus), yet Lanchberry orchestrated it with a superb ear for color produced by fairly modest pit-orchestra resources. Lanchberry’s own recording for the original film, long available on LP and briefly on CD, is not quite complete, and at any rate currently seems to be available only as an MP3 download. If you’re fond of the score, this new video production is the best way to obtain it.
As for the ballet itself, it’s a visual feast, but it must be a trial for the dancers. Ashton’s ever-elegant choreography seems not to be extraordinarily challenging (with a few fine exceptions), but the dancers perform in heavy, padded costumes with oversized heads that must make balance sheer hell. It’s heaven for viewers, though, and not just children; Rostislav Doboujinsky’s masks and Christine Edzard’s overall design make Potter’s animal characters pop right off the storybook page, true to the original illustrations and also true, as much as possible, to the anatomy of the actual small creatures, against beautiful, lavish backdrops. Some of the dancing necessarily barely rises above pantomime, but much of it is quite impressive, including the sleek frogsmanship of Zachary Faruque as Mr. Jeremy Fisher, and the verve and energy of the squirrels, led by Steven McRae as Squirrel Nutkin.
Clearly, this is a production designed to entertain children, but it does require a knowledge of the Potter stories (provided, in part, by the illustrated synopsis that constitutes the disc’s only special feature). Except for an unfortunate incident involving Squirrel Nutkin’s tail, there are no real onstage threats to the characters; barking hounds in the wings scare away a fox before he can do any damage to Jemima Puddle-Duck; a butcher van briefly pulls up in front of the home of some pigs, but does not linger; a cat casts its shadow over a pair of mice, who easily find safety (and make trouble) in a dollhouse. No Brothers Grimm violence here; children will be enchanted, not traumatized, and adult balletomanes should be tickled by Ashton’s sly little references to steps from major ballets of the past.
Unless you’re the sort of person who finds such things too … I think the English term is “twee,” this is an irrestible, enchanting production, its visual magic enhanced by high-definition video and DTS-HD Master Audio (PCM 2.0 is also available).