See biographies by D. Vaughan (1977) and J. Kavanagh (1997).
Ondine is a three act ballet created in 1958 by legendary British choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton for the Royal Ballet to music composed by Hans Henze. Ondine was choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton as a vehicle to highlight the undoubted talents of British prima ballerina assoluta, Dame Margot Fonteyn. Someone described it as 'a concerto for Fonteyn', and certainly at its first performances most of the attention was concentrated on her. Other ballerinas danced it a few times, but it is really only since Sir Anthony Dowell as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet persuaded Ashton to allow him to stage a revival, thirty years later, that audiences have been able to appreciate the overall ballet, rather than just the performance of Fonteyn.
After its premiere in 1958 it was greeted with mixed, half-hearted reviews, although the first night reviews of Ondine were unanimous about one thing: Fonteyn's triumph in the title role. A.V.Coton spoke of "the supernormal sensitivity of feeling, interaction and mutual understanding which exists between Ashton and his heroine", and Cyril Beaumont saw the ballet as Ashton's "greatest gift" to his ballerina. Nothing else about the piece pleased everybody, though most reviewers liked Lila de Nobili's designs and praised the contribution of the supporting cast - Beaumont called Alexander Grant's Tirrenio "of Miltonic stature, magnificently danced and mimed." Edwin Denby famously dismissed Ondine: after praising Fonteyn he said "But the ballet is foolish, and everyone noticed". Most critics disliked the music and Mary Clarke was in the minority when she called it "rich and romantic and superbly rhythmical". Fernau Hall thought Henze showed "little understanding of the needs of classical dancing", and that Ondine would establish itself firmly in the repertoire "if it were not for Henze's music". Originally Nadia Nerina and Svetlana Beriosova shared the leading role of Ondine with Fonteyn.
In 1958 the ballet was widely seen as having choreography and décor in harmony with each other but fighting with the music; now it’s the choreography and the music which seem to speak the same language, while the sets look not only backward but to the north. Even when it was revived in 1988, it was hailed neither as a disaster nor as a lost masterpiece. Henze's modern music is also perceived as a reason for the few performances of this ballet before its revival in the 1990s.
The consensus on Ashton's 'Ondine' is that it has some very good things in it - and this is true; as is the implication that it is otherwise unsuccessful, not least because the music (which greatly disappointed Ashton himself) largely fails, except in the storm of Act II and the divertissements of Act III. According to many critics, the music didn't suit Ashton "who had been hoping for music as "radiant" as the Mediterranean from which its heroine was born". Yet the music does seem to fit its watery theme well: there are some beautiful passages to Ondine’s Act 3 “swimming” solo where the music seems thin and transparent as watercolour, and entirely suited to this sketch of the sea. The ballet is also a mixture of both the 19th and the 20th century, for the plot is quintessentially romantic, however the music and choreography is more modern. Although it bore all the marks of Ashton's familiarly gentle, classically oriented manner, it discarded the classical ballet conventions that appear in such Ashton successes as Cinderella and Sylvia. What he was trying to suggest, says Ashton, was "the ebb and flow of the sea: I aimed at an unbroken continuity of dance, which would remove the distinction between aria and recitative." As a result, Ondine offered few pyrotechnics, gained its effects instead through sinuous mass movements in which the undulation of arm and body suggested forests of sea plants stirring to unseen tides. The sense of submarine fantasy was reinforced by Stage Designer Lila de Nobili's fine scenery: a castle of mist and fruitfulness, shadowy crags and waterfalls, aqueous skies streaked pink and green.
Ondine is not a classical construction with great set pieces (except for the wedding divertissement in the third act) or grand formal pas de deux, but a continuous, flowing narrative. However, this narrative is itself not very strong and there is no real explanation of why the lovers are on a ship in Act 2, or what exactly has passed between Acts 2 and 3 in order to convince Palemon to return to his mortal lover, Berta. The work uses classical ballet vocabulary, but the form varies a great deal from the 19th century classics. Unlike them, is through-composed: there are no breaks for bows to the audience built in and (at least until the 3rd act divertissement) no bravura variations to self consciously elicit the audience’s response. Henze's glittering music is the dominating force, although it's a difficult score to dance to, with the pulse well hidden within its general sheen, but it's fabulously atmospheric and often rampantly exciting, bringing the close of Act I to a massive climax.
Although the narrative is not strong, the setting is and displays a "most convincing feel of the sea" and the "shimmer of water" which is very effective in this ballet which is filled with images of water and particularly of the sea. The first act of the ballet takes place in the courtyard of the castle of Palemon where Ondine is seen dancing in the waterfall. Other settings include a scene with Tirrenio and the ondines while another is on a ship during wild storm at sea where the sensation of motion while being on board ship is strong enough to make the audience seasick. The third act takes place in the Castle of Palemon located near the sea. The final tableau is not only exquisitely beautiful, with Ondine grieving over the body of her lover, but the surrounding ondines, their arms drifting like seaweed in the dim green light, uncannily evoke the shifting currents under the sea.
When Fonteyn danced the lead, the ballet was about her and her performance; however good today’s interpreters may be, none has the mystique to reduce everyone else to the background, and so the supporting roles are now much more visible and need to be much more strongly depicted. It's generally accepted that Tirrenio was originally the most completely worked out role, inherited from Alexander Grant's lack of awe for Fonteyn, however the role has become difficult to cast as it was created to showcase Grant’s unique mixture of gifts - classical virtuosity and flair for characterisation.
|1958, London (Royal Ballet)||Ondine||Margot Fonteyn|
|Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea||Alexander Grant|
|Grand pas classique||Rosemary Lindsay, Annette Page, Ronald Hynd, Desmond Doyle|
|Divertissement||Maryon Lane, Brian Shaw, Merle Park, Doreen Wells, Peter Clegg, Pirmin Trecu|
|1959, Monte Carlo (Ballets de Noël)||Ondine||Margot Fonteyn|
|1964, London (Royal Ballet)||Ondine||Margot Fonteyn|
|Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea||Alexander Grant|
|1970, London (Royal Ballet) Tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton||Ondine||Christine Aitken|
|1981, London (Royal Ballet) 50th Anniversary Programme||Divertissement||Wendy Ellis, Wayne Eagling, Laura Connor, Rosalyn Whitten, Stephen Beagley, Ashley Page|
|1988, London (Royal Ballet)||Ondine||Maria Almeida|
|Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea||Stephen Jefferies|
|Divertissement||Rosalyn Whitten, Bruce Sansom, Fiona Brockway, Nicola Roberts, Anthony Dowson, Jay Jolley|
|2000, Milan (Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala)||Ondine||Alessandra Ferri|
|Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea||Biagio Tambone|