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Lincoln Center Festival Presents
Director: Nigel Redden
Director, Publicity: Eileen McMahon
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Birmingham Royal Ballet
Director: David Bintley
Music Director and Conductor: Barry Wordsworth
New York City Opera Orchestra
Music Director: George Manahan
Review by Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
July 10, 2004
Sir Frederick Ashton, actually born in Ecuador about one century ago, was Britain's most renowned choreographer. Ashton choreographed his first ballet at the age of 21 and later was Co-Founder of the Ballet Club, later Ballet Rambert. He served in the Royal Air Force and joined Ninette de Valois as associate at Vic-Wells Ballet, later The Royal Ballet, which he directed from 1963 to 1970. Ashton produced 80 ballets, opera dances, film dances, and musical comedies. He mentored dancers and choreographers and developed an enormous following in the international arts community. (Program Notes).
Birmingham Royal Ballet (Dante Sonata, 2000, Birmingham): Music by Franz Liszt, arranged by Constant Lambert, Choreography by Frederick Ashton, Design by Sophie Fedorovitch, Lighting by Mark Jonathan, Performed by Lei Zhao, Jenna Roberts, lain Mackay, and the Company as Children of Light; Angela Paul and Andy Rietschel and the Company as Children of Darkness, Solo Pianist: Jonathan Higgins.
This work seemed even more interesting on the second viewing. I was struck by the symbolism of the "Children" caught in Hell, all overcome by the forces of Evil. The gestures of two and three figures with interlocking arms seemed to evoke a sense of connection and continuity. Ashton created his ballet, shortly after his mother's death, and the sense of mental agony and inner pain was supremely evident. lain Mackay and Andy Rietschel were quite effective as the new pair of cross-born sacrifices, and Angela Paul and Lei Zhao were respectively menacing and stoic figures in Darkness and Light. I was surprised that Jonathan Higgins, pianist, did not seem to appear for a bow. He was excellent as an interpreter of Liszt with the incantations of turmoil and sorrow.
Birmingham Royal Ballet (The Two Pigeons, 1961, Royal Ballet, London): Music by André Messager, adapted by John Lanchbery, Choreography by Frederick Ashton, Design by Jacques Dupont, Lighting by Mark Jonathan, Performed by Ambra Vallo as The Young Girl, Chi Cao as The Young Man, Silvia Jimenez as A Neighbor, Asta Bazeviciute as A Gypsy Girl, lain Mackay as Her Lover, Michael Revie as A Gypsy Boy, and the Company as Friends, Gypsies, and Sightseers.
Every once in awhile, a balletomane is introduced to a brand new ballet, almost full-length (two acts), and that ballet remains scenically and psychically in her mind for days. I do not recall Messager's lovely score, but I do vividly recall the essential images of life interpreting nature, of Ambra Vallo's pigeon-like qualities and Chi Cao's ambivalence in love and repentance in pain. I vividly recall Asta Bazeviciute's dance of the tantalizing temptress, the one who seduces her admirer into torture and hell. In fact, the juxtaposition of quaint painter's garret in Paris and dark Gypsy Camp in the outskirts, exquisitely designed by Jacques Dupont, remains another vivid series of images.
The story is simple. A young girl eagerly loves a young painter, who is a blasé boor. He shakes off her romantic lunges, and she and her friends walk all around the art studio like pigeons. Meanwhile, real, white pigeons fly onto the Met Opera stage and either perch or fly away, with the music timed to listen to their soft, fluttering wings. This touch, alone, was awesome. Soon a Gypsy and her lover enter the hallowed garret, and the cold, bored painter is mesmerized with her sense of darkness and danger. Neither the pigeon-like lover, nor her pigeon-like friends can hold onto the wandering lad.
The lad follows his dream, much like Don Quixote and Dulcinea, or Siegfried and Odile, with fruitless and treacherous results. The Young Man, as he is called, is eventually wound up in long ropes and beaten and attacked by the dancing gypsies, and the wild and wanton Gypsy Girl repetitively lures him into violence. He escapes to return to his garret, where The Young Girl waits on the balcony, perched like a pigeon, and takes him back onto a metaphorical wreath-like chair, arms encircled like wings of the pigeons. The real pigeons return.
The Gypsy dances were virtuosic and exciting. Asta Bazeviciute could not have been replaced in this daring and devilish role. With orchestral tambourines and exotic intonations, the Act II Gypsy encampment scene was riveting. The Company, as Gypsies, showed their versatility, especially after performing the very "campy" Enigma Variations with bicycles and hammock, and now knives and ropes. Their barefoot, Dante Sonata was infused with Modern Dance, and this character ballet was infused with Jean de la Fontaine, all en pointe. Silvia Jimenez, as the neighboring pigeon-girl, showed off her wide range of skills, as well, after recently appearing as the lead in Dante Sonata's Children of Darkness, wound in black. lain Mackay, as the Gypsy's lover, exuded exactly the right amount of vicious violence and internalized jealousy.
The one challenge of this ballet seemed to be the prompting effect of such strong body language. That is, I anticipated every action, every device. The Young Man would obviously stray, The Young Woman would obviously wait, her friends would obviously try to protect her, the Gypsy Girl would obviously be a lure, her Gypsy Lover would obviously be a threat, his friends would obviously assist him, and the pigeons would obviously return. However, this a fable, and fables have a structure and a lesson. This lesson may be unrealistic or politically incorrect, but a happy ending is a surprise in itself.
I would love to see this Ashton work enter the repertoire of more companies soon. I hope these extremely well trained pigeons remain in NY. It is not easy to choreograph pigeons. The memory lingers on.
Lincoln Center Festival, 2004—Ashton Celebration—Two Pigeons. Birmingham Royal Ballet. Date Photographed: July 7, 2004
Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival
Kudos to Lincoln Center Festival 2004.