Birmingham Royal Ballet
Daphnis and Chloe, The Two Pigeons
13 March 2012
The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest treat for London admirers of Frederick Ashton is a double bill of ballets he created around two of his favourite dancers: Daphnis and Chloe, made for Margot Fonteyn, and The Two Pigeons, inspired by Lynn Seymour. I’m not convinced that the two pieces complement each other particularly well, but each of them has many pleasures and it’s interesting to see how – fifty years on – they survive the loss of their great original casts.
Daphnis and Chloe should be the stonger: Ravel’s great score is a masterpiece in its own right, and John Craxton’s colour-saturated, evocative sets glow with Mediterranean warmth. The second scene, in the pirates’ lair, may be choreographically rather weak, but the simple, grave dances for the corps de ballet in the opening scene, and the joyful finale are top-drawer Ashton. There were some pleasing performances from the secondary characters: Tyrone Singleton’s pirate chief needs only a little more flamboyant relish, Ambra Vallo makes a sultry seductress and Matthew Lawrence a tough, rough Dorkon
Daphnis is a difficult role to bring off. Like Aminta in Sylvia he shows none of the enterprise and courage a modern audience expects from a hero: he lies unconscious on the sea shore until a god brings his abducted lover safely home, and Ashton’s choreography reflects the mildness of his temperament. It takes a strong character to keep our interest and sympathy: Iain Mackay’s amiable niceness isn’t quite enough. Ashton once said that he missed Fonteyn in this ballet more than in any other, and only a couple of the dancers I’ve seen as Chloe in the last twenty years or so have really brought the role to life. Elisha Willis is miscast, I’m afraid: she does the steps brightly and clearly but she doesn’t tell us nearly enough about Chloe’s heart or her soul: our own hearts aren’t touched, and the ballet misfires.
Two Pigeons, of course, was made for this company, and has remained almost its exclusive property over the succeeding fifty years. On the surface it’s a much less sophisticated work than Daphnis and Chloe and when it was new there were critics who rather looked down on it – a charming Valentine card, perhaps, but not to be taken seriously, what with all that pretty music and the live pigeons. It has survived very well, though: if you remember Lynn Seymour you can see her influence, and her feet, everywhere, but she has had some very fine successors and the piece is cleverly made as well as having, in the final pas de deux, one of Ashton’s greatest inventions. Some exaggeration has crept in over the years – I don’t remember the posh visitors to the gypsy camp being so very tittupy, for instance – but the charm is still there.
Nao Sakuma, in Seymour’s role, didn’t quite reach the heights in the last minutes, but she was sweet and funny in the first scene; and in any case the evening really belonged to Robert Parker, giving his last performance in London and challenging memories of almost any of his predecessors. Whilst being very, very charming he also has some of the toughness which I think Ashton originally intended, and the sincerity of his regret at the end was entirely convincing. He will be sadly missed.