The Enigma Variations Ballet History

Let’s take a look at the Enigma Variations Ballet, which some of you have probably never heard of, but this is one of Ashton’s most original and moving ballets and it is definitely worth an article on this website.

Enigma Variations

Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton

Music: Sir Edward Elgar

Decor: Julia Trevelyan Oman

The Enigma Variations Ballet is a one-act ballet first performed by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden on the 25th of October 1968.

In this ballet, Ashton has provided a skillful realization of ‘the friends pictured within’ of Elgar’s Variations.enigma variations ballet

Ballet Synopsis

The curtain rises showing Elgar’s house and the surrounding garden and countryside. Elgar holds the score and there are friends gathered whose inspiration he has acknowledged in the music.

The composer Elgar, at this point in his career, is struggling and is awaiting a message from London. While they are waiting, Mr. and Mrs. Elgar and their friends are portrayed in dances representing their personalities.

Mrs. Elgar stands watchfully on the stairs as Dorabella, an enchanting young girl, dashes in and hugs the composer. Slowly the ‘tableau vivant’ of the opening pose comes to life.

First Steward Powell enters on his bicycle and dances briefly, knocks out his pipe on his heel, and realizes suddenly that it is getting late, he then rushes off again.

Baxter Townshend arrives on his tricycle, surrounded by a group of children, who are avid readers of his ‘Tenderfoot’ books. They dance with him as he struggles with his ear trumpet.

Meath Baker then bounds down the stairs, brandishing a list of arrangements for the day, in a boisterous character solo, which ends with a bang as he rushes back into the house.

Now it is Isobel Fitton’s turn. She rises from the hammock where she has been lying, with Richard Arnold in attendance, and in two linked variations, they express a lyrical affection before returning to the hammock.

Next Troyte Griffith bursts on in a dazzling classical variation and dashes off. Now it is the turn of Winefred Norbury to rise from the table where she has been sitting with A J Jaeger, who is Elgar’s close friend and publisher, to dance a graceful variation.

Then Jaeger rises, and in the most celebrated and famous section of the work (Nimrod), he walks slowly across the stage and is joined by Elgar in a dancing conversation referring to the closeness of their friendship. They are then joined by Mrs. Elgar.

As they leave, Dorabella enters with a scherzo and ends her variation by dancing with her adored friend Elgar. Dorabella has a speech impediment and this is told/heard by the musical score that is used as she dances. As they exit, G R Sinclair comes on with a troupe of children, and his dog dashes around with much barking and then goes into the River Wye.

Next Basil Nevinson pulls forward a stool and sits playing the cello while Elgar and his wife dance the pas de deux expressing all her desire to comfort and sustain him and his reliance upon her support in his life.

The mysterious opening of Lady Mary Lygon’s variation brings a vision of that lady surrounded by curls of mist as she drifts across the stage like some unattainable ideal.

The martial strains of the final variations find all the friends returning to the stage and a telegraph boy brings on the telegram from Richter announcing they will conduct the first performance of the Variations,]. Elgar is summoned and receives the news with great joy, as does his wife. In a final pose, the entire group of friends joins together while Steward Powell photographs them.

The above is just the surface of Ashton’s ballet. It is the first layer of his creativity, and it has beautiful variations with contrasts, humor, and a sense of style with an effortless realization of the music.

But the true concern of the ballet is with something more serious and more enduring. It is that of the artist’s life, his loneliness, and those inner doubts of the creator that not even the love and affection of friends or a wife can ultimately touch.

This theme runs through the ballet, supporting and giving it shape, just as Elgar’s theme does to the score.

At the opening, when the musical theme is stated and leads into Caroline Elgar’s variation, we see how Dorabella’s youth and joyful affection could delight the composer, and how his wife’s attention could sustain him.

Then Ashton’s theme runs underground until Variation IX for Nimrod. Here it bursts out into the most deeply emotional section of the work, in which we sense the intense relationship of love and affection between Elgar, his wife, and Jaeger, which helped the creative artist at his most self-doubting moments.

With Dorabella’s variations, the theme runs underground again, but it reappears in the pas de deux for Elger and his wife in Nevinson’s cello part and takes a different form in Lady Mary Lygon’s solo, in which that lady becomes a vision of some imagined ideal.

The resolution of this creativity is seen as the true climax of Enigma Variations Ballet.

Here is a heartwarming video of why the Royal Ballet love to perform Enigma Variations.

5 thoughts on “The Enigma Variations Ballet History”

  1. I appreciate your article on The Enigma Variations Ballet History Michel and it definitely deserves a full length article on your site. You mention that most people have probably never heard of it but that shouldn’t play too big a factor into its inclusion anymore than a person would have to explain or justify their reasoning for liking a particular song. Your passion for the ballet and experience with the topic are more than enough for most people to see why this endeavor is important to you.

    Your Cliff’s Notes style review may even save some of those people from actually watching the ballet were they to be tested on the subject. Thank you for this thorough and interesting review!

    • Thanks for stopping by Joseph. And yes it is fun researching all these old and forgotten ballet’s and bringing them back to our memories.

  2. This is a fascinating article about the Enigma Variations ballet and its history. It’s great to learn more about the creative process behind a ballet, and the way the choreographer and composer worked together to create a unique and beautiful piece of art. The article provides a lot of insight into the various themes and motifs in the ballet, as well as the technical challenges involved in performing it. Overall, a very interesting read for ballet enthusiasts and those interested in the creative process.

  3. In my opinion, the Enigma Variations ballet holds a significant place in the history of classical ballet. Based on my experience, this iconic ballet, composed by Edward Elgar and choreographed by Frederick Ashton, showcases a unique blend of musicality and storytelling. The Enigma Variations explore themes of human emotions, relationships, and the complexity of the human experience. My question is, “What are some notable performances or interpretations of the Enigma Variations ballet throughout history? How have different ballet companies and choreographers approached this piece, and what elements of the ballet have resonated with audiences over time? 

    • Enigma Variations has been difficult to revive, but the Royal Ballet has done it a few times over the decades, and as far as I know it is always popular. I am not sure if any other ballet companies have had any success with it.


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