Monotones I and II, The Two Pigeons (mat. & eve.) – The Royal Ballet, December 5 2015

A double dose of Ashton, two pieces more in opposition in tone and character couldn’t really be programmed. The program itself underscores Ashton’s individual talent and innovations – and his ardency for tradition.

Monotones is cooly Ashtonian. Pared to the bare frame of steps, it is Pure Ballet – Art Ballet, one may say. Absent of emotion, I thought it peculiarly “British”. Shape and form working in pursuit of elegance. Body fitting costumes and clean, clear lines speak of an aesthetic striving for what was in the 1950s the then-modern. The work tends towards the serene, even though some of the shapes themselves look striking. Watching some of the work therein I found myself tracing a (tenuous) line from Ashton directly to McGregor, though the later strives for urgency and exaggeration where Ashton asks for placidity, understatement. This is dance within its means, and its means are classical steps, a vocabulary with a foundation and fascia in the rudiments of balletic tradition.

To the strains of Satie, six of the Royal ballet’s finest chased the languid lines of Ashton’s dream. Trio one was Emma Maguire, Tristan Dyer, Yasmine Naghdi. Naghdi was standout in the trio. The eye was drawn to her on both viewings. Her musicality expressed itself as continual grace. Her lyrical inflection of the text hinted at a soul which understands these non-narrative works, and more, it hints at an intelligence which can make sense of them, and project that same sense. However, and there is a however: for this piece, lovely though this was, the approach began to look a little mannered. Ms Naghdi cannot help that, she is after all, very young. I imagine this sweeping lyricism may be examined, ruthlessly critiqued and then the extraneous discarded: the hallmark of a great artist. And, I would rather have this expression of grace, than a by-the-book account, which is close to how Maguire and Dyer took it. Nothing horrible, but perhaps too cool, too detached. There were a few very slight wobbles in arabesque from Dyer but again, nothing horrible.

Monotones I stood somewhat in the shadows of Monotones II on these performances. In part because, I think, it is a superior product, and in part because of the casting. Out of Edward Watson, Valeri Hristov, and Marianela Núñez, it was Núñez who distinguished herself. Edward Watson found the tone of the piece well, and made Hristov unfortunately look the poorer. As an aside, for once the copious applause felt a little too much after pieces so slight.

Two Pigeons was as if from another planet after Monotones. Yes, it’s twee, but I enjoyed it. Love wears its tender heart plainly here. James Hay, “The Painter” in the matinee, seemed to me the better acted presentation and consequently the more likeable. Hay’s face in the reunion scene was blissful, maybe in an almost crazy way, but it worked. In the evening show Alexander Campbell‘s seemed a little more played towards the stage rather than the auditorium. Nevertheless, for a bigger dancer, Campbell made good work of the devilish Ashtonian footwork.

In the matinee Akane Takada was technically excellent as the Young Girl, but Yuhui Choe was nothing less than a revelation. This was the first time I had seen her in a substantial role requiring acting. Her Young Girl was both silly and innocent, exactly how it should be, I think. To contain the narrative line we must believe she compares her love to the birds which fly by the window on stage. As a comic ingénue she was the better played. It has to be said that both had the little flutters and shakes of bird-like writing done really well. I think credit must go to Gary Avis and Samantha Raine for coaching.

Mayara Magri (mat.) and Itziar Mendizabal (eve.) were the gypsies. Magri was my favourite, mainly because she has always been a favourite to watch. She fully understood the need to ham it up a bit and to behave with abandon and revelry. As her lucky lover Frederico Zucchetti tired a little in his Russian split jumps, but at least he managed a good split, as Tomas Mock in the evening show didn’t quite. What a pleasure though to see the ROH’s two stunt artistes of Sambe and Montano tear up the stage as gypsies in the corps.

And well, they say never work with children or animals. For a denouement which relies entirely on two animals doing exactly the right things on cue, much could go wrong. The two shows proved this. To our gathering laughter Hay’s pigeon took an alarmingly long time to settle on the chair it has to perch on. Campbell’s disdained the chair altogether, and decided it would quite like to watch the proceedings from onstage. Choe had to work hard not to thwack it a few times with her shoe. Nevertheless, the music swelled and the Young Girl’s pigeon flew in. For some reason the evening “flight in” worked best. Magic, general audience feeling, who knows. The birds worked, and the lovebirds were reunited. I was fully moved, and was not alone. Two Pigeons returns paired like a lovebird, with Ashton’s Rhapsody. What an evening that promises to be!

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