Gender, Muses, and the Virtuosa in Frederick Ashton’s ‘Rhapsody’


In this paper I examine Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody (1980), a ballet choreographed in celebration of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday and the guest appearances with the Royal Ballet by Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the most iconic male dancers of the Cold War era. Ashton chose the ballerina Lesley Collier—an exemplary interpreter of the choreographer’s style—to partner with Baryshnikov which brought into focus a juxtaposition of Russian and English ballet training. Set to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43, Ashton’s Rhapsody is a plotless ballet that gestures toward the Paganini myth (a Faustian bargain with the devil exchanging the soul for prodigious talent), but instead takes for its central subject the notion of balletic virtuosity. As a result, Rhapsody is a glittering whirlwind of fast footwork and athleticism; most interpretations of Rhapsody tend to associate the Baryshnikov role with Paganini and bestow the label of virtuoso to him, while the Collier role is likened to a muse. However, choreographic analysis and critical attention to the writing about the ballet reveal a slightly different narrative, one which raises questions about the gendered assumptions of the terms virtuoso and muse. Accordingly, I argue that Rhapsody disrupts conventions of gender by embodying notions of the male muse and female virtuosa. In addition, I consider the bejeweled appearance of the male dancers’ costumes and theorize the “opulent male body” as subversive to the heroicized male body of classicism.