Royal Ballet: Asphodel Meadows/The Two Pigeons review – beauty and whimsy

Royal Opera House, London
Liam Scarlett’s 2010 work is as lyrical as ever, while strong performances and a live pigeon can’t save Frederick Ashton’s romcom

When it premiered in 2010, Asphodel Meadows marked out the then-24-year-old Liam Scarlett as the next big thing in ballet. What was so impressive for a young choreographer was how he was concerned not only with the creation of individual steps but also with the orchestration of the stage. Like a composer does with a large-scale score, he explored movement that was homophonic and contrapuntal, voicings doubled up for effect, motifs passed between dancers, and melodies that might be echoed across the stage or magnified en masse.

The title refers to part of the ancient Greek underworld, a place for the souls of ordinary folk. But it is a loose theme, and the piece feeds on Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, a fantastic work in which great romantic themes butt heads with jazzy chord clashes. In its steps and lines, much of Scarlett’s choreography is not particularly classical, but it doesn’t attempt a schism with the past. There is a deep romanticism in its lush and melting lyricism, a respect for form in its composition.

I saw one of the second casts in a matinee performance, a showcase for some of the Royal Ballet’s up-and-comers. First soloist Fumi Kaneko was an authoritative presence, while Mayara Magri and Tristan Dyer made these ordinary souls exceptional in a poignant pas de deux. Dyer, a soloist with the company, moves with richness, strength and grace; not just someone who strings together steps, but a real dancer.

Scarlett has indeed gone on to great success since this first major work, but Asphodel Meadows isn’t merely a starter piece – it stands up as a beautiful and accomplished piece of choreography.

A scene from The Two Pigeons.
A scene from The Two Pigeons. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Now, just as you’ve been lulled into this land of classy contemporary ballet, along comes The Two Pigeons. Frederick Ashton’s 1961 romcom came back into the Royal’s rep a few years ago, and I can’t help thinking it needs to return quietly to the archives.

It is hard to get behind a story so thin. Supposedly a tale of true love, in reality it is the story of a misguided, infantilised girl (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) who is repeatedly pushed to placate her huffy artist beau (Reece Clark), who ditches her in a flash when a sexy Gypsy lady randomly bursts into his studio. The girl takes him back later, just because he turns up with a cute (live) pigeon. Zero self-respect there. To be fair, the pair of starring pigeons are most diverting, especially the bird that, at one point, takes a diversion into the orchestra pit, no doubt after losing interest in the plot.

There’s lots of cutesy comedy, in which you have to be a very committed performer to convince. Lauren Cuthbertson (who appears in other performances during this run) is probably the best I’ve seen at doing this, but the charming Stix-Brunell tackles the role with utmost professionalism. Within the ridiculous frame of the story there is some good stuff: Ashton’s ever-agile footwork, a witty dance-off between Stix-Brunell and the alluring Claire Calvert as her Gypsy rival. (Girls, he’s not worth it!) There’s Luca Acri tearing into a showpiece solo, and the energetic women of the Gypsy camp having a lot of fun swooshing skirts and shimmying shoulders.

But really, all that talent and training could be put to better use. Put this piece to bed, and make space for whoever the next big thing might be.

• At the Royal Opera House, London, until 13 February.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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