Review: Royal Ballet - Monotones I and II / The Two Pigeons - Royal Opera House

Performance: 18 November - 5 December 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 20 November 2015

The Royal Ballet - 'Monotones I'  - Yasmine Naghdi, Tristan Dyer, Emma Maguire. ©ROH, 2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

Performance reviewed: 18 November

The evening opened with a brief and dignified statement from The Royal Ballet’s Director, Kevin O’Hare, dedicating the ensuing performance to all those affected by the recent events in Paris. Les Deux pigeons is a French story, originating as a seventeenth-century fable by Jean de La Fontaine and premiering as a ballet at the Paris Opéra in 1886, with a bespoke new score by the Opéra-Comique composer, André Messager. A French setting is retained in this mid-twentieth century English revival with Jacques Dupont’s set design providing a birds-eye view over an idealised Parisian skyline. The music of Erik Satie also creates a distinct Gallic flavour for the Monotones. Altogether, it provided an appropriate programme to be dedicated to the people of Paris.

It was also the balletic equivalent of a night at the museum, since these works by The Royal Ballet’s Founder Choreographer, Frederick Ashton, are not often performed at The Royal Opera House (although Monotones was part of a mixed programme in 2013)* and neither is considered to be in the top rank of his repertoire, as measured by demand from international companies. All three ballets were made in the 1960s, chronologically in the reverse order to their performance here: in 1966, Monotones I had followed on from the original Monotones, created a year earlier, which then became known as Monotones II when they were put together; and The Two Pigeons had premiered – rather appropriately – on Valentine’s Day, 1961.

Considering that the choreographic career of Ashton lasted more than 50 years, the first extraordinary point to take away from this performance is the radical difference between the two works, both in style and content, even though separated by just five years in their respective compositions. The Two Pigeons has the feel of a ballet made in an even earlier age – it could have been choreographed decades’ previously; whereas the Monotones appear to preface an altogether different kind of choreographic and design style; in terms of heritage, one could see them as the beginning of a journey that has led to Wayne McGregor’s choreography by way of Merce Cunningham’s minimalist design ethos.

The Monotones each engage just three performers on a bare stage, dancing to the music of Satie, wearing full-body unitards (known as a body stocking, back in the day); the opening trio wear pale lime green outfits, while the second group are encased in shiny white cocoons. Ashton told the dancers on whom these works were made that the dancers in white were heavenly creatures, and those in green were of the earth. Beyond that, he left few clues to any meaning, leaving all his other intentions to resonate through a highly stylised atmosphere. His movement is largely slow, measured, creating sharp angles and clear lines; it is laid bare by the sparseness of the surroundings and the stark exposure of the body shapes.

Whereas Monotones I is a ballet for emerging dancers to glisten – and Emma Maguire, Yasmine Naghdi and Tristan Dyer performed marvellously – it is the first of these works to have been made that presents the greater challenge, notably in the sculptural moulding of body shapes and the hyper-flexibility required to achieve them, with the added expedient of slow, firm control. I felt that the two men in the more experienced cast (Valeri Hristov and Edward Watson) struggled to achieve the level of control required, especially in their manipulation of the gymnastic contortions of the “chicken on a spit” sequence. However, when they moved in unison with the other-worldly presence of Marianela Nuñez, the impact was suitably mesmeric; notably, when the three appeared, as if a trio of Arabian genies commanding spirits from an unseen bottle.

The Two Pigeons is also very much a work in two halves. The two acts have altogether different qualities: the first – set against that window depicting the Parisian skyline – is all about dance theatre; where comedy, petulance and desire are central themes. A young man is painting the portrait of a young girl, but becomes irritated by her restlessness; a random group of passing gypsies is somehow invited into their apartment (although the men’s idealised style of dress is somewhere between the pirates of Le Corsaire and the toreadors of Don Quixote). Amongst them is a fiery gypsy girl who takes the fancy of the young man and the act closes when he runs off to follow her.

This opening session largely belongs to Lauren Cuthbertson, giving a quirky, comical account as the bored young girl, thickly accentuating her portrayal so that it would have been suitably conveyed to a pigeon’s eye view in the rafters. As her fickle young man, Vadim Muntagirov is less overtly expressive but his acting skills are certainly building over his time with The Royal Ballet. The dancing in this act is mostly descriptive and some moments work well, such as when the boy slings his body upside-down over a chair as an indication of surrender (in terms of any further thoughts of painting), legs splayed over the chair-back, head and arms resting on the floor. Elsewhere, however, the pigeon-like, head bobbing movement with bent arms waving like wings is over-done.

The second act is all about virtuoso dancing at the gypsy encampment – the set appearing like a section through the kind of wooden barn seven brothers might have built for seven prospective brides – with a rousing sequence of uplifting solos. As the gypsy temptress, Laura Morera dashes off some dazzling diagonals, with linked chains of beautifully controlled pirouettes en pointe; Marcelino Sambé inspired many cries of “bravo” through nailing Ashton’s exciting choreography for the gypsy boy; and Muntagirov exceeded his own great standards of virtuosity in an immense exhibition of gala-style dancing, including an impressive set of linked tours en l’air and pirouettes. I’d love to say how many were triple and quadruple turns but it was just too sensational to bear the distraction of counting.

Cuthbertson hardly features in the second act, returning just for the brief final scene back in the rooftop apartment, which represents both the couple’s reunion, through a tender pas de deux, and the opportunity for the two “pigeons” (they are actually doves) to fly on stage, thus representing this reconciliation of young love. As he had done in La Fille mal gardée, using the motif of ribbons, Ashton’s predilection for simple, sentimental metaphors is fairly rampant in this work; not only by using the live birds but also, for example – in framing part of the love duet within the circular design of a chair-back, making it look like a Victorian betrothal photograph.

This is a ballet for anyone with a tender heart; whereas the Monotones are more attuned to the head. Together, they provide a remarkable insight to the two sides of Ashton: the vulnerable, sentimental gay man using his choreography as a love letter; and the genius who could create dance steps that didn’t just sit on the music but flowed through it. Full marks go to Kevin O’Hare for revitalising these two lesser-known but nonetheless essential parts of the British ballet heritage; and for enhancing the entente cordiale by dedicating such an uplifting evening to the people of Paris.

Continues in rep: 24 & 27 November; 4 & 5 December

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH, 2015

*edited to add reference to Monotones in 2013

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