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.