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Birmingham Royal Ballet - ‘Dante
Sonata,’‘The Two Pigeons’
June 11-12, 2004 – Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, England
The Birmingham Royal Ballet is celebrating the Ashton centenary earlier
than Covent Garden and last weekend they performed a beautifully balanced
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 is danced barefoot. Contemporary critics felt
it was too heavily influenced by Massine and de Valois and 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
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 the 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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