Symphonic Variations as seen through the eyes of Wendy Ellis Somes

This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

With its bomb sites, rubble and rationing, London in 1946 was still marked by the scars of war.

Queues formed at bread shops, the city reeked, and England was soon to suffer its worst winter in more than a hundred years.

But glimmers of light could still be found. Near the markets of Covent Garden, something remarkable was happening.

The Royal Opera House, closed during the war, reopened with a flurry of publicity as the new home of the Sadlers Wells Ballet.

In February, news cameramen filmed the arrival of velvet seating, workmen polishing the gilt ornamentation on the balconies and on the stage, dancers rehearsing The Sleeping Beauty.

Despite the destruction of much of the city, the Royal gala performance that formally opened the Royal Opera House was a symbol of recovery but it was surpassed by what came next, a ballet called Symphonic Variations.

With a cast of only six dancers and a simple backdrop, the work by Frederick Ashton was acknowledged as masterpiece from its first performance.

As the curtain fell on the opening night of Symphonic Variations, “the audience went bananas because they had d been through such hard times”, said Wendy Ellis Somes, the former ballerina who holds the rights to the ballet.

“To have something on the stage so beautiful, so peaceful – it was a new beginning for the people of England, from this dark sphere there was a breath of fresh air”.

Somes is in Sydney to stage Symphonic Variations for the Australian Ballet. This will be the first time the company has danced the ballet and few people in the audience will have seen it in Australia.

More than 50 years ago it was performed in Australia by a small touring group of dancers from the Royal Ballet, led by Margot Fonteyn, the ballerina who danced in the original cast.

Frederick Ashton kept Symphonic Variations in a balletic cocoon.

“It was his baby”, said Somes, and in his lifetime, only the Royal Ballet (as the Sadlers Wells Ballet was renamed), was allowed to perform the work.

Ashton died in 1988, bequeathing his ballets to friends, family and dancers, among them the Royal Ballet’s star, Michael Somes, who partnered Fonteyn at the premiere of Symphonic Variations and who inherited the ballet in Ashton’s will.

After Ashton’s death, Somes decided to free the ballet from its hallowed ground at Covent Garden. With his wife, Wendy, who had retired from the Royal Ballet, he staged the work for the Dutch National Ballet then American Ballet Theatre in New York.

Somes died in 1994, leaving the rights to the ballet to his wife who went on to stage the ballet in Canada and the United States and now in Australia.

The couple had no children and all she will say about its future is: “It’s in my will”.

In the past three weeks Somes has worked with the Australian Ballet, imparting her knowledge of the ballet’s history, how Ashton wanted the dancers to look like “angelic beings, celestial bodies, that’s the feeling that needs to come over to the public”.

The essence of the ballet is peace, harmony and symmetry. The dancers’ costumes resemble Greek statues, with the women in white tunics and the men in white tights and tops.

But it’s also a very English ballet, with the swirling lines of the greenish yellow backdrop inspired by the view that Ashton and his designer, Sophie Fedorovitch, saw as they bicycled up a hill in Norfolk and saw the sun shining onto a glade.

As Somes has talked of the ‘perfume’ of the ballet I asked how it would smell if it was a scent.

“Of spring, primroses, primroses and fresh mown grass. Very English”.

“I’ll tell you how it came about, through Fred’s own mouth to myself. He went through a difficult war and he used to listen to the music of Cesar Franck (composer of Symphonic Variations) on an old record player.

“He used to say ‘if I get through this war I’m going to write a ballet to this piece of music’”.

The history and inspiration for the ballet might be romantic, but for the dancers, it’s all grit and stamina.

Throughout the 18-minute work, “they never go off the stage”, said Somes.

“From curtain up to curtain down, even standing in repose at the side of the stage, for them it’s an absolute killer. It doesn’t look it, that’s what’s so intriguing”.

My review of the Australian Ballet’s Ashton program was written for

Click on the link below.

Symphonic Variations

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Symphonic Variations, original cast, 1946

Wendy Ellis Somes coaching CInderella for Ballet West

Ako Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott, Symphonic Variations, the Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud