Review: The Royal Ballet - Rhapsody / The Two Pigeons - Royal Opera House

Performance: 16 - 30 January 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 18 January 2016

The Royal Ballet - Francesca Hayward & James Hay in 'Rhapsody' Photo: Helen Maybanks, ©ROH, 2016

Performance reviewed: 16 January

Here was a vintage re-enactment of the unique style of English ballet, reproduced in fine detail through the sensitive revival of two lesser-known masterpieces of understated elegance by Sir Frederick Ashton; as much the inventor of the English style as Bournonville was to Denmark and Balanchine to the USA.

Rhapsody is deceptive in terms of revealing its age. Created in 1980, as a birthday present for the Queen Mother, the pale, golden Grecian designs of William Chappell convey an unequivocal feel of the 1940s. Without knowing the antecedents of this half-hour classical romp, one might be inclined to date the designs to the same era as Ashton’s Symphonic Variations (1946) and Scènes de Ballet (1948). Although Rhapsody shares the same muscle-sapping complexity as those earlier ballets, this dose of Ashton style has a distinctive Russian flavour in its choreography for the male lead; this, because the work was made on the virtuoso skills of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who came to the Royal Ballet as a guest artist, on the condition that Ashton created a ballet on him.

The significance of this 2016 revival is to return the ballet to its original designs, dispensing with revisions to the set, costumes and backdrop that were made in 1995 and 2006 and I much prefer it as originally intended. Having no explicit narrative, the ballet is enlivened by Chappell’s costume designs and Ashton’s own two-dimensional elevation of a classical pavilion, providing the cartoon impression that the choreographer often favoured in his designs; but one that quickly turns human when the silhouettes of dancers draped around the pillars and windows come to life.

A vague hint of gender competition appears in the ensemble work of two distinct corps of six men and six women; a battle of the sexes in which the girls are on top. Their combined delicacy and robust harmonic patterns were in stark contrast to the less co-ordinated integration of their male courtiers. James Hay gave a strong account of the role created by Baryshnikov. He possesses a light, airy jump aligned to a lyrical, romantic style. It’s a very tough role, however, and Hay appeared to struggle with some of the more demanding tests of strength and stamina.

Francesca Hayward was enchanting as the vivacious lead ballerina, reaffirming this quintessential portrayal of the English style with dazzling fast footwork, elegant undulating arms and a supple curving form. Achieving Ashton’s own intentions could have come from no better source than through her coaching by Lesley Collier, the ballerina who partnered Baryshnikov at the premiere; and passing on the depth and authenticity of that knowledge and experience is clear in every facet of Hayward’s radiant performance. Amongst the supporting ensemble, a special mention goes to Isabella Gasparini for stepping in to replace the indisposed Olivia Cowley and essaying her own unexpected moment in the spotlight with a faultless and charming solo.

The Two Pigeons has returned quickly to form the major part of a second Ashton Bill in this 2015/16 season, a speedy homecoming that makes up for a 30 year prior absence from the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. Despite the rather daft and predictable storyline, I have come to appreciate that it deserves a regular turnout, every few years, as a key repository of the English tradition. One of the great successes of Ashton’s repertoire is the unerring knack of achieving timeless and memorable designs and this is yet another of his ballets that is beautifully – and elaborately – designed (by Jacques Dupont).

Dupont’s setting of an attic apartment with its huge window onto the panorama of a distant Paris skyline is much the best element of a dull first act. The allusion between the unnamed artist and his girlfriend and the two pigeons is seriously over-egged in the irritating, repetitive elbow-flapping evocation of wings in motion. Perhaps encouraged by the success of his chicken dance in the previous year’s La Fille mal gardée, Ashton allows sentimental mawkishness to get the better of his choreographic judgement by flapping the lovers’ arms at almost every opportunity once the pigeons have flown past the window. I have similar concerns about the bluntness of shoulder-rolling movements as Ashton’s leit-motif for the gypsy girls.

This opening half-hour is tolerable only as a means of passage to the brilliant second act. A condensed capsule of English ballet where Ashton lets loose with rip-roaring choreography to facilitate his ideal of the gypsy encampment’s raucous volatility, followed by his charming, fragile pas de deux to mark the young couple’s reconciliation.

Yuhui Choe was an absolute delight as the young girl, enjoying every facility across the spectrum of challenges set by Ashton’s taxing choreography. She aligns fast steps, supple curves and sharp poses to a dramatic expression that takes her audience through a range of emotions; beginning with caprice and flirtation; then the vulnerability of abandonment; and finishing with the ecstasy of reunion. Playing the fickle young artist, Alexander Campbell dances with a strength equally born of passion and lyricism. He and Choe are ideally matched for this balletic rom-com.

The real stars are the doves that double for the two pigeons. They behaved impeccably; one sitting still on Campbell’s shoulder as the young man returns from his shenanigans with the gypsies and then remaining perched on the chair frame even when it was jolted by an accidental kick. But, it is the flight of the second dove across the stage to join his companion that provides the perennial tear-jerking moment and these lovebirds cooed to perfection. This is where Ashton’s sometimes overwrought mawkishness strikes Cupid’s bull’s-eye and hits the jackpot. I often wonder why the doves don’t take a curtain call. This pair certainly deserved one.

It was illuminating to see these venerable Ashton ballets performed by a new generation. If one exempts the beautiful character artist, Elizabeth McGorian (as the two human pigeons’ neighbour), there was not a single principal dancer on stage during both performances. The absorption of Ashton’s unique style by these young dancers is both refreshing and immensely gratifying. Bravo to all concerned.

Continues at the Royal Opera House until 30 January

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

Main photo: Francesca Hayward & James Hay in Rhapsody by Helen Maybanks, courtesy ROH

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On