5 Facts about Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter
Discover 5 interesting facts about the beloved ballet, The Tales of Beatrix Potter
You’d be hard-pressed to find a ballet as adorable and whimsical as Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Tales of Beatrix Potter. The ballet features scenes from some of Beatrix Potter’s most beloved stories like The Tale of Jemina Puddleduck, The Tale of Pigling Bland, The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, The Tale of Two Bad Mice, and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Here are five facts that might surprise you about this beloved ballet.
It was created for The Big Screen.
In the early 70s husband and wife duo Richard Goodwin and Christine Edzard set out to create a ballet film based on Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s books. Rather than creating a screenplay, the pair drafted over 200 sketches to outline the structure of the film. They then recruited famed choreographer and former director of The Royal Ballet, Frederick Ashton to choreograph the film and director Reginald Mills, who was well known at the time another ballet film, The Red Shoes, to bring it to life. After three years of hard work, the film premiered on June 30th, 1971.
Sir Frederick appeared in the film.
Jonathan Howells as the beloved Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle in The Royal Ballet’s 2007 production
Yep, you read that right, famed choreographer and ballet director Frederick Ashton appeared in the 1971 film as none other than the beloved hedgehog Mrs.Tiggy-Winkle. That’s right, it’s Ashton himself skipping through the English countryside in a hedgehog costume in the 1971 film which set a precedent for male dancers playing the role. In 1992 Iain Webb performed the role of Mrs.Tiggy-Winkle, followed by Jonathan Howells in the 2007 revival.
Sir Frederick did not want the ballet to be performed on stage.
The trailer for The Royal Ballet’s 2007 production of The Tales of Beatrix Potter
Having carefully crafted dances and movements for each of Beatrix Potter’s whimsical characters with the Big Screen in mind, Frederick Ashton was insistent that the ballet not be performed on stage. However, four years after Ashton’s death, Anthony Dowell decided to adapt the beloved film for The Royal Ballet’s stage. The stage adaptation premiered on 4 December 1992. The first performances were not received well, critics felt that the adaptation was disrespectful to Ashton, and found the overall performance too long for children. However, this didn’t stop audiences from falling in love with the production, leading to the subsequent 2007 and 2010 revivals.
The score was inspired by opera.
Composer John Lanchbery arranged the score for the film using excerpts from operas by Arthur Sullivan, Jacques Offenbach, and Michael Balfe. Arranging the excerpts alongside his original compositions he created a cheerful and nostalgic score for the now iconic ballet. When Dowell adapted the film for the stage, it was discovered that the original score, stored on delicate transparencies, was severely damaged from damp and mold. Lanchberry had to re-write most of the score piecing together what he could from the salvaged music. Luckily the remastered score is just as delightful as the original, and Lancheberry had the honor of conducting the orchestra for the stage adaptation.
Yes, the costumes are difficult to dance in.
Dancer Jemma Sykes as Jemima Puddle-Duck in The Royal Ballet’s 2007 production.
If you’ve seen this adorable ballet you may have wondered how the dancers manage to move in such impressive costumes. The original costumes for the 1971 film were designed by Christine Edzard who enlisted the help of mask-maker Rostislav Doboujinsky. Wanting to keep as close to Beatrix Potter’s charming illustrations as possible they came up with genius costume designs that transformed dancers into giant lifelike characters. They may look incredible, but the heavily padded costumes do restrict the dancer’s movements making them slower in turning and jumping and limiting their vision. Luckily, Frederick Ashton took this into account when choreographing the film.
Doboujinsky’s original masks were made from bike helmets, polystyrene, and hand-sewn hair, and featured vision holes that were then covered in gauze. When the film was later adapted for the stage, Doboujinsky had to create new masks, based on molds of the originals, which allowed a larger field of vision for the dancers. He did this by drilling hundreds of holes in the front of the mask and then covering the mask in nylon hair using electrostatic charges. Despite these efforts to help dancers see, dancer Christopher Saunders ( The Fox 1992) still remarked that dancers see very little through the mask and are only able to pick up the lights and that plenty of rehearsals are what really help the dancers move and see.
There you have it, five facts about Frederick Ashton’s unbearably charming ballet, The Tales of Beatrix Potter. Fancy watching the full production? You can watch The Royal Ballet’s 2007 revival anytime on Marquee TV.