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A Much-Loved Classic: Why Ashton’s The Two Pigeons is making a long-awaited return to the stage

Our audiences have pushed for a revival of this two-act work more than any other Ashton ballet, but what makes it so loved?

By Stephanie Jordan (Research Professor in Dance, University of Roehampton)

16 November 2015 at 4.45pm | 8 Comments

Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare tells me eagerly that – more than for any other Ashton ballet – people have pressed him to revive The Two Pigeons. The ballet hasn’t been in the Royal Ballet repertory since 1985, so why does it occupy such a special place in people’s affections?

The current Royal Ballet revival is led by Christopher Carr, Guest Principal Ballet Master. He has worked on the ballet for a whole year, consulting all the films from over the decades that he can find – some of very poor quality and decidedly ‘off’-synchronization with the music. Carr’s job is to trace changes across revivals and make decisions about what not to use. Proficient in Benesh notation, he has also consulted the score, which was written as the ballet was being created. This document has also been annotated over the years and offers some alternative accounts of the movement.

Working with Carr is former Royal Ballet Principal Lesley Collier, who herself played the Young Girl and names it as her favourite Ashton role. Collier remembers that when being coached by Ashton for her Royal Ballet School performance in 1965, the choreographer always wanted flow and movement through the body. Ashton, she says, could demonstrate moves so easily, even in flat shoes and with cigarette in hand! ‘He gave quality’, she adds, and was ‘insistent, not in any way forgiving of lack of experience… And it was for us to learn from him, not for him to teach us.’

A striking feature of The Two Pigeons is Ashton’s use of motif and metaphor. Arms are wings that say many things. They flap merrily (sometimes with jutting heads), or behave as if broken, or reach full span. Meanwhile, the Young Girl’s pointes shiver or twitch impatiently. There is also her bird-resting pose that hugs the floor, with her torso stretched over one leg extended before her. This imagery develops through the ballet, growing out of the narrative, becoming less fidgety and funny and more soft and tender.

Intriguingly, the flapping forward and back of elbows as wing tips is not so far removed from the very strange gait of the silly sightseers progressing through the gypsy camp. Nor is it so distant from the fierce, free shoulder-rolling of the gypsy folk. It’s both different and the same. Likenesses and reverberations across various characters make us home in on their architectural and expressive detail and distinction.

At the same time, devices of contrast reveal unbridled passion and dangerously strong feeling. It has been said that Ashton would do anything to avoid ‘levelness’ and that he’d work like a demon to heighten the contrast between slow and fast, languorous and sharp. Look at the near stillness at the climax of the final pas de deux, odd and plain yet at the same time ultra-vivid. The couple’s arms rise and fall while their heads bow and arch, just that, up/down, down/up, in perfect communion. She suddenly escapes, only to race back across the stage into his arms, which in turn ignites a series of huge, swooping, circular lifts down the diagonal. That’s a totally different way of treating climax – through opposition.

The Two Pigeons adds something special to the Ashton repertory – the story of young, awkward, unfinished innocents becoming, with experience, man and woman. The process towards that goal is complicated, but Ashton convinces us that it is an ideal worth striving for. The American dance writer Robert Gottlieb wrote in 2004: ‘What moves Ashton – and us – is love fulfilled. Which is why, in this post-ironic, postmodern world, we need him more than ever.’ That’s still the case today.

This is an edited extract from Stephanie Jordan’s article ‘Loving Pigeons’ in The Royal Ballet’s programme book, available during performances.

Rhapsody / The Two Pigeons runs 16–30 January 2016. Tickets are still available.

The mixed programme will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 26 January 2016. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from David Campain, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson and the Fonteyn Circle.

This article has 8 comments

  1. marilyn weston responded on 17 November 2015 at 10:52am Reply

    so looking forward to seeing,I remember well david wall and alfreda thorogood dancing to was lovely

  2. susanne stowell responded on 17 November 2015 at 11:27am Reply

    Does the Two Pigeons include 'The Fred Step' ?

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 17 November 2015 at 4:10pm

      Hi Susanne,

      Thanks for your query. Anna Trevien, The Royal Ballet’s Senior Benesh Notator, says the Fred Step does appear in The Two Pigeons – in Act I, the Young Girl’s Friends enter and each performs the step individually around the Neighbour.

      All best,

  3. Manon1753 responded on 13 January 2016 at 12:17pm Reply

    I checked showings in Paris. It would seem that it will only be shown as a direct broadcast on Tuesday 26 Jan, starting at 20:15 local time. Not much chance of taking a little girl to such a long and late performance in the middle of the week. Are there REALLY no "Encore" anywhere in Paris?? Please advise

    • Sarah Walsh (Cinema Account Coordinator) responded on 13 January 2016 at 1:03pm

      Hello there,

      I'm afraid you're right. All our cinemas in France are only screening the live event. While we'd be happy for them to screen our encores, at the moment, due to programming and distribution reasons, the French cinemas we work with are unable to do so.

      Kind regards,


  4. Christoph responded on 24 January 2016 at 11:47am Reply

    Can you tell me please which music is used in this mixed programm? I couldn't find any note about this quite important issue. Thank you

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 25 January 2016 at 10:03am

      Hi Christoph,

      Rhapsody uses Rachamaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and The Two Pigeons is set to Messager's ballet of the same name. You can find more details on the production pages for the two ballets (Rhapsody and The Two Pigeons).

      All best,

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