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Birmingham Royal Ballet - Ashton Celebration

'The Two Pigeons'

by Jerry Hochman

July 9, 2004 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City

It’s all too rare to get excited about ballet performances these days. I appreciate great individual performances and great ballets when I see them, but rarely does everything mesh. It did tonight at the Met. The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performance of Frederick Ashton’s "The Two Pigeons" was miraculous.

According to the Lincoln Center Festival brochure, the last time "The Two Pigeons" was performed in New York was 1963. I’m not a dance scholar and have no idea how the ballet was received then, but I can describe how it was received tonight, the first of two performances in the Ashton Celebration. I found myself talking out loud as Act II ended, in utter disbelief. And complete joy. And I wasn’t alone. When the piece ended, the audience, literally, roared. Then they stood and cheered.

Although I appreciate the undeniable quality of his work, I’m not a huge Ashton fan. I’ve found many of the less familiar ballets too dry, somewhat inaccessible, and overly precious. But "The Two Pigeons" is wonderful. Its story, based, according to the program notes, on an extract from "The Fables" of Jean de la Fontaine (which appears to be titled the same as the ballet, but the program notes do not indicate it), is familiar. There are these two young lovers. One decides to leave his love, and explore the world. After succumbing to the outside world’s seduction, he is nearly destroyed by it. He returns to his love, and both are now wiser for the experience, and the love they have for each other is stronger than before. The end. All through the ballet, I kept thinking of "The Fantasticks," the long-running off-Broadway musical. The story is very similar; perhaps they mined the same source.

In any event, in Ashton’s hands the story is transferred to a studio in Paris, and Ashton has the lovers imitate pigeon movements together with classical ballet steps. No, it is not "Pigeon Lake." Maybe more the "Prodigal Pigeon." And the world that the boy lover decides to explore is a world of gypsies (like "The Fantasticks") who somehow show up at the studio and seduce him into joining them at their encampment. It sounds ridiculous, But the choreography is at once funny, touching, exciting, moving, and inventive. Not being a dancer, I have difficulty describing in technical terms what I saw. But the two lovers are given dances that are achingly lovely, the gypsy dances are intense and exuberant and great fun to watch, and the stage is never silent.

But the choreography is only part of the story. The Birmingham’s dancers not only did the choreography justice; they honored it with an extraordinary display of dancing and acting, both on an individual and on an ensemble level. As the lovers, Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker were perfect. Perfect is the only word that fits. Sakuma in particular was sweet and funny and delicious and appeared to me to be technically impeccable. And Molly Smolen as the lead gypsy girl who seduces the boy was at once molten and as funny as Sakuma. And Parker’s gypsy dancing matched Smolen’s intensity and accomplishment. But as fine as the three leads were, the ensemble was just as good. As was the orchestra. This was simply great fun, and a wonderfully executed joy to watch.

And then there were those pigeons. The real ones. In addition to Ashton’s conceit of having the dancers mimic pigeons, there are real pigeons that take flight at critical moments, or perch on Parker’s shoulder. And with the last image, when the lovers are united behind the back of a chair, looking as if they’re birds inside a cage, and the real pigeons fly to perches at the top of the “cage” above them, I – and the rest of the audience – just totally lost it. If there were an award for best performance by a live pigeon (and best training by a pigeon trainer), it would surely go to the pigeon that flew to the stage floor, thought about it for a moment, and then joined its fellow pigeon on the perch above the lovers heads. Total wipe out.

"The Two Pigeons" will be performed once more, tomorrow night (by this time, it’s tonight). If you’re within 500 miles of New York, and have never seen "The Two Pigeons" before (or even if you have), get tickets. Hopefully, the ballet powers that be will not wait another forty years before they bring "The Two Pigeons" back to New York.

Edited by Jeff.

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