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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Dante Sonata' and 'The Two Pigeons'

Birmingham celebrates Ashton centenary

by Cassandra

June 11-12 (matinee and evening), 2004 -- Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham

The Birmingham Royal Ballet is celebrating the Ashton centenary earlier than Covent Garden and last weekend they performed a beautifully balanced double bill.

Ashton’s “Dante Sonata” dating from 1939 was inspired in part by the invasion of Poland and perhaps more significantly, by the death of his mother and the collapse of a relationship. It is something of an oddity insofar as it’s danced barefoot. Contemporary critics felt it was too heavily influenced by Massine and de Valois considered it too gloomy for public morale during the war years.  But audiences flocked to it. In view of the fact that it was so very much admired in its time and that there is always somewhere in our world a place where conflict rages, this will always be a topical piece. After decades of neglect, David Bintley is to be congratulated for rescuing this work from obscurity.

The curtain rises on a simple set with lines on the backcloth suggesting a stairway, perhaps to heaven or to hell. The Children of Darkness make their entrance: forceful and malevolent. The girls look glamorous and the men are near naked in flesh coloured briefs.  Both sexes have snake-like coils across their arms and torsos. These dark children are far from unattractive: a hint about how fascism in the 30’s seduced so many? By contrast the Children of Light are gentle and serene, the dignified entrance of the men suggesting the moral high ground. The Children of Darkness quickly resort to violence; both physical and sexual and the contest is rather one sided against the somewhat passive Children of Light. Crucifixion in different forms is a recurring image: a graphically brutal upside down one with the miming of the hammering in of spikes and the crucifixion lifts in the finale.

I recommend seeing this ballet from above to fully appreciate the sculptural qualities of the tableaux and the beautiful final moments when the dancers lie down on the stage to form a giant curling serpent, reflecting the coils on the arms and torsos of the Children of Darkness. It was danced with total sincerity and both casts were excellent, but as the leading child of light, in the role created for Fonteyn, Lei Zhao with her long black hair obscuring her face for a moment, looked so like Margot, it was uncanny.

The second ballet of this programme couldn’t have been a greater contrast. Inhabiting a Parisian attic with the dimensions of a spacious modern day loft apartment, the lovers in “The Two Pigeons” squabble and part after a young artist abandons his fidgety girlfriend/model for a fiery, treacherous gypsy. He is beaten and humiliated before being led home by the pigeon (white dove actually) that perches outside his window. He returns to his deserted love and they are eventually reconciled. In a way the story is very simple but Ashton tells us it with such affection and emotion that we all become deeply involved to the extent that half the audience is shedding audible tears of joy at the end.

This ballet always “works”: it doesn’t matter much who is dancing or how well they are dancing (rather well, actually), the choreography is the star. The more I see this work the more I appreciate it. In particular the final scene of reconciliation is heartbreakingly lovely as the young girl lies alone and deserted on the ground and her lover slides his arms through hers in a gesture of affection and reassurance. At first she cannot respond – he has hurt her too much, but they then embark on a tender pas de deux of sweet reunion, swaying back and forth with happiness before sinking to the floor in front of an ornate chair to be joined by the two pigeons of the title who fly in to perch on top of the chair reflecting the renewed pairing of the lovers. It’s no wonder there is barely a dry eye in the house. I imagine most people have experienced the pain of parting at some point in their lives and that is why this work remains timeless and will always strike a chord.

Over the weekend I saw three pairs of lovers; on Friday night, Rachel Peppin and Tiit Helimets, Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker at the Saturday matinee and Ambra Vallo and Chi Chao on Saturday evening. All were good, but perhaps it was Peppin who pulled must forcibly on the heartstrings; so pathetic and lonely that your heart bled for her. Of the young men Parker was the most romantic and the most contrite of the three and Molly Smolen at the matinee made a stunning gypsy, though none of the gypsies manages to shake those shoulders quite as well as I remember in the past.

“The Two Pigeons” was created for this company back in 1962 when it was then known as the touring company, it’s to their credit that after all these years this ballet can still appear fresh and new.

Edited by Jeff.

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