Ballo della regina: Merrill Ashley

by Emilia & Linda on May 11, 2011

Merrill Ashley, one of Balanchine’s great ballerinas, was renowned for her amazing speed, attack and musicality, gifts that she brought to the central role in  Ballo della regina. Below is a photo gallery with selected shots from Merrill in rehearsal with dancers of the Royal Ballet, as well as an extract of our recent interview with her, from our latest guest blog about Ballo for the Royal Opera House:

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. (…)

Read the full post in the ROH blog or watch a video featuring Merrill, Lauren Cuthbertson and dancers of the Royal Ballet in rehearsal.

All photos by The Ballet Bag ©

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Jenn May 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Excellent interview with such a legend. The photos are also amazing… I look forward to seeing more.

Linda May 11, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Thanks Jenn. We have more interviews in the pipeline!

Catherine C May 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Great, you’ve added dancer names to the photos! :) Lovely insightful interview too. Tell the ROH they should have a slide show feature for pics on their site, like yours! Nice work ladies..

Emilia May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Thanks for the comment. We agree the ROH should invest in a better photo display feature for their blog. We’ll make sure to pass on your feedback. So glad you approve of the slideshow feature, it took us ages to find one that did a good job. Photo presentation is so important & an often overlooked element :)

Grier Cooper November 3, 2011 at 12:04 am

Merrill Ashley is one of my favorite ballerinas of all time. It was interesting to read that even Balanchine was challenged when it came to finding things she couldn’t do! It was wonderful to read an interview from such an accomplished dancer.

Emilia November 4, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Thank you for the lovely comment Grier. For the anecdote, we were in such awe the first time we met Merrill: in an elevator inside the Royal Danish Ballet HQ, where she was guesting as Madge in La Sylphide!

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