Birmingham Royal Ballet at The London Coliseum – Spring Passions [Daphnis and Chloë … The Two Pigeons]

Daphnis and Chloë

Chloë – Elisha Willis
Daphnis – Iain Mackay
Lykanion – Ambra Vallo
Dorkon – Matthew Lawrence
Bryaxis – Tyrone Singleton
Pan – Tom Rogers
Nymphs of Pan – Céline Gittens, Victoria Marr, Jenna Roberts
Shepherds, Shepherdesses, Pirates, Pirate Women – Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet

Maurice Ravel – Music
Frederick Ashton – Choreography
John Craxton – Design
Peter Teigen – Lighting

The Two Pigeons

The Young Girl – Nao Sakuma
The Young Man – Robert Parker
A Neighbour – Victoria Marr
A Gypsy Girl – Elisha Willis
Her Lover – Matthew Lawrence
A Gypsy Boy – Tzu-Chao
Friends, Gypsies, sightseers – Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet

André Messager adapted and arranged by John Lanchbery – Music
Frederick Ashton – Choreography
Jacques Dupont – Design
Mark Jonathan – Lighting

Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Koen Kessels

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 13 March, 2012
Venue: The Coliseum, London

This is a fine mixed bill, as fine as one could wish for: two of Sir Frederick Ashton’s best and best-loved works presented together. Their juxtaposition is illuminating – both deal with love lost and re-found, a recurring theme in Ashton’s oeuvre, both showing love both sacred and profane (he made this explicit in his rarely revived work originally made for new York City Ballet Illuminations to music by Benjamin Britten and evoking the poetry of Rimbaud) and both brimming with the lyrical inventiveness typical of his ‘middle period’ – Daphnis dates from 1951, Pigeons from 1961.

Birmingham Royal Ballet are relatively new to Daphnis (it was originally made for the Covent Garden company and showcased Margot Fonteyn). BRB uses John Craxton’s wondrous designs, a masterpiece of scenic vision, here quite breathtakingly lit by Peter Teigen. Indeed, Teigen makes one look anew on certain scenes – his watery, green light for the Nymphs of Pan (superbly danced) is successfully supernatural, the sunrise on the final beach scene authentically Mediterranean – the light becomes almost white by the end of the ballet: a superb evocation of its blinding quality by that sea at the height of the day. Koen Kessels led the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in a warm and lush interpretation of Ravel’s evocative score, although the effect was somewhat dulled by the absence of the (costly) choir except in a recorded excerpt at the beginning of the second pirates lair scene. Kessels is a fine musician and elicited tangy playing from his orchestra, not least, on this occasion, the brass section who were both precise and idiomatic.

The revival in terms of the dancing was more dutiful than inspired; the dancers were somewhat overawed by this work whose extreme stylisation in terms of corps work in particular must still feel spontaneous. They were not relaxed: Tyrone Singleton looked intimidated by his demanding choreography as the Pirate Chief Bryaxis. Even more worryingly, much of Ashton’s very precise ports de bras was smudged, nowhere more so than in Matthew Lawrence’s disappointing Dorkon – where it should be all rippling muscles and rutting brawn, there was a mildly dyspeptic expression and imprecise upper body. Ambra Vallo was superbly slutty as Lykanion, the village girl who takes Daphnis’s innocence – her throes of ecstasy were delivered with appropriate abandon. Elisha Willis’s innocent Chloë was likable, even if she, in common with most, was insufficiently pliant – Ashton’s famous exhortation ‘bend, bend more’ was echoing in the ether: he would have had words to say about the stiffness which characterises many of the dancers. Her ‘torture’ at the pirate lair elicited real expression and anguish from her. Iain Mackay danced well in the rather pallid role of Daphnis.

Things certainly looked up with a top-notch revival of the delightful Two Pigeons, one of Ashton’s most charming creations. This work is in the company’s blood (it was made on them in 1961 and has never left their repertoire) and it continues to dance it to the manner born. Robert Parker is soon to retire from dancing to head the Elmhurst Ballet School; on this showing he will leave at the top of his game. His Young Man was not only superbly and idiomatically danced (and he partners well too) but also packed with small details to flesh out a real person – his first scene tiff with Nao Sakuma’s enjoyable Young Girl was pleasurable. In this part Sakuma has a role which suits her many talents like a glove – she is pert and precise, the delivery of the steps possessing the quicksilver it needs to make the choreography zing. Additionally, she conveys both comedy in her teasing of the Young Man and the ‘dance-off’ between her and the Gypsy Girl, and real pathos when she is left by her lover. The final reconciliation pas de deux was executed beautifully by both, a fitting end to performances of the highest order, bringing a tear to many eyes in the house, not least with the return of the second of the impeccably well behaved pigeons to its mate. Elsewhere, all was also well. Corps de ballet was stylish and in unison, and the company responded to the hip-thrusting pantomime of the gypsy band with gusto, ripping their way through the many dances Ashton gives them – it was all simply tremendous fun. Matthew Lawrence was happier as the Gypsy Girl’s lover, and Elisha Willis made an impression, swapping injured innocence as Chloë for the come-hither vampishness of the Gypsy Girl – she certainly earned her pay that night! Mark Jonathan’s lighting is generally too dark but Jacques Dupont’s simple but evocative sets continue to make their mark. Kessels and the orchestra made much of Messager’s toothily tuneful score, wallowing in its Belle Epoque lushness, strings in particular singing with lyricism.

A successful pairing of two wonderful ballets – all praise to BRB for bringing them to London.

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