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Royal Ballet's 'Enigma Variations': understated with memorable undertones

In memory of the great British composer Edward Elgar, radio broadcasts and concert halls here have been paying tribute to him on the 50th anniversary of his passing.

For its part, the Royal Ballet Company has been offering ''Enigma Variations, '' its successful interpretation of his music in the form of a one-act ballet choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton in 1968.

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The brilliant piece of music - which portrays with feeling and clarity the characters of his wife and 12 of his close friends - brought Elgar immediate recognition and world fame at the end of the last century.

He dedicated the work simply to ''my friends pictured within,'' and he identifies each part with nicknames or initials.

Later, after much comment about who the friends actually were, he wrote with typical British reserve, ''It is true I have sketched for their amusement and mine the idiosyncracies of thirteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians; but this is a personal matter and need not have been mentioned publicly.''

Ashton has set the ballet at the Elgar home in Worcestershire on a mellow, autumnal afternoon. In this decor - as English as cricket, croquet, and cucumber sandwiches - Elgar greets his friends as he awaits news of whether his ''Enigma'' score has been accepted by the famed conductor, Hans Richter.

The first variation (''C A E'') is of Elgar's wife, whose life, he once said, ''was a romantic and delicate inspiration.'' Rosalind Eyre brought dedication and loving support to her dancing as the French horns lent romance to the score.

The next three characters are eccentrics. ''H d s-p'' arrives on an old black bicycle, and executes an arabesque on it as he leaves the stage. ''R b t'' comes on with ear trumpet and a three-wheeled cycle. Strong music accompanies ''w m b'' as he energetically (and with many skid-stops) carries out quick decisions, papers in hand.

The mood changes to a graceful, leisurely tempo as leaves fall onto the hammock where ''ysobel'' reclines, talking to a scholar. Marguerite Porter, in long dress with peacock blue satin slippers and bow, flows through a pas de deux.

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The elegant tripping of ''w n'' who used to accompany Elgar on the piano as he played his violin, is watched by the composer as he relaxes and ponders in a large wicker chair. The dancing is very Ashton - plenty of quick changes of direction in arabesque.

The music for her solo leads into ''nimrod,'' the most famous theme of the Variations and the best-loved of Elgar's works - apart from ''Land of Hope and Glory,'' part of his ''Pomp and Circumstance'' marches.

The theme is haunting, expressively beautiful and quintessentially British - understated but with memorable undertones.

Ashton's choreography here is perfect. The moment has to remain impersonal so that each listener can visualize his own idea of the composer's vision. The finale - ''e d u'' - represents the composer himself. The letters spell out the abbreviated form of ''Edward'' used by his wife.

The music links up with the first theme and brings them blending together. Ashton adds his own sense of completeness by having a uniformed telegram boy bring word that Hans Richter has agreed to conduct the first performance of ''Enigma'' (so-called, incidentally, because Elgar refers to an elusive melody that underlies the work which no one has actually heard).

Elgar reads the message. He is thrilled but keeps a stiff upper lip. Modestly he accepts the congratulations of his friends who pose for an old-fashioned camera photograph.

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