Among the choreographic cabbages of the current Royal Ballet repertoire some prize-winning blooms still grow, and director Kevin O'Hare is to be praised for replanting a charming and delightful example of Frederick Ashton's genius, The Two Pigeons. It has been absent from Covent Garden for some 30 years, shunned by successive Directors, but O'Hare, whose dancing career was with Sadler's Wells (now Birmingham) Royal Ballet and in the repertoire of which Two Pigeons has always featured, has wanted its return. It is most welcome: it is short at two acts both just over half-an-hour, it is charming in its simplicity of its narrative of a restless Young Man seduced by wild gypsies who soon sees the error of his ways and returns to the Young Girl who loves him, and it is simply packed with choreography of comedy, pathos melting lyricism.
Christopher Carr, doughty guardian of the Ashton repertoire and meticulous repetiteur has staged the work, and it comes up both fresh as a daisy and suffused with period charm. That period feel was present in 1961 at creation, as Ashton was consciously looking back to the romantic ideal of Parisian garret studios and gypsy encampments with strangely seductive, exotic inhabitants – the choreographer revelled in 'period', and so do we as we sit back and simply enjoy this enchanting little tale.
Lauren Cuthbertson plays comedy well, so her shiftings and wigglings while sitting for her portrait in the opening scene were deftly delivered, as were her attempts to match the Gypsy Girl in their 'dance-off'. She can also communicate hurt and disappointment, so her increasingly desperate attempts to keep hold of the Young Man were moving. She exults in Ashton's lush choreography, arching her back, bending deeply and sweeping her arms into his extravagant épaulement.
Vadim Muntagirov is a first-rate Young Man, easily encompassing the dancing elements but also hitting the right note of laddish impetuosity at the heart of his character. He is not a bad boy, just curious and with itchy feet, utterly spell-bound by the sultry looks and sexy demeanour of the Gypsy Girl who shimmies into his life. Laura Morera was that Gypsy Girl, smouldering and seductive, beguiling and brazen who herself is intrigued and flattered by the attentions of this fresh-faced youth. Her dancing is a marvel of musicality and Ashtonian style, feet and legs pin-sharp, upper body warm and generous. The company looks good as Ashton provides much for assorted friends and gypsies to get their collective teeth into, and while The Royal Ballet rarely convinced recently as sultry southerners in Don Quixote and Carmen, seemingly always retaining an air of South coast gentility, here they do, as Ashton never asks his dancers to do things they cannot do.
This is a young person’s ballet, a work that will fulfil and stretch up-and-coming dancers (it was initially created for the ‘junior’ Royal Ballet Touring Company) and, on first night, a youthful corps de ballet shone, packed with promising artists fresh of both limb and smile. Barry Wordsworth led a spirited performance of Lanchbery’s reworking of Messager’s enchanting score – it may not be the most sophisticated music, but it perfectly matches Ashton’s aesthetic with its scent of the Belle Epoque. Jacques Dupont’s period designs are faithfully recreated, looking fine on the large stage, and the gypsy costumes shimmer with appropriate luridness.
Pigeons is not, however, long enough to fill an entire evening, so a pendant work must be found. For this first, pre-Christmas run, it is paired with Ashton’s Monotones I and II to Erik Satie (also orchestrated by Lanchbery), thereby giving a distinctly Gallic musical flavour to the evening. Montones was also out of favour at Covent Garden for some time, but O’Hare believes in it, and brought both back (Monotones I was often excised in time past), and here it returns, looking quite wonderful. Two trios (one fmf, one mfm), one ‘green’ and earthy, one ‘white’ and celestial, both extraordinary examples of sustained adagio choreography. It is an object lesson in “good, old British Cecchetti technique – all chaste and flowing arabesques, limpid contrapposto harmonies, impervious balances and strict épaulement”, as the great New York-based critic Arlene Croce once observed. They are, in short, masterpieces, works in which the angle of the arm, the unfolding of a leg, the tilting of a head have weight and meaning.
As reactions to Satie’s music (Gnossiennes for I, Gymnopédies for II), they are sophisticated and sensitive and they create world suspended in the void, utterly compelling, completely convincing. Monotones I has been superbly revived, the three young dancers impeccable in the delivery of this most demanding choreography, musicality shared, heard with a common ear. Tristan Dyer is a versatile dancer, who appears across the repertoire, but I was glad to see him so controlled and pure of line, as indeed were the impressive Emma Maguire and Yasmine Naghdi, well matched too. Marianela Nuñez gave perhaps a little too much ‘interpretation’ as the central female figure in Monotones II, but that is excusable in return for her gorgeous line and her sensitivity to the musical pulse within the choreography.
This is a superb double bill, showing the breadth of Ashton’s creative talent in the 1960s – from light narrative drenched in couleur locale to limpid abstraction. A must see, and a definite feather in O’Hare’s directorial cap.