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.

Contributor

Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Royal Ballet mixed bill review – a trio of 60s flashbacks
Lauren Cuthbertson and Reece Clarke’s masterclass in clarity is the highlight in a night of Macmillan, Ashton and Petipa

Lyndsey Winship

23, Oct, 2019 @10:38 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet: The Unknown Soldier / Infra / Symphony in C review – bittersweet beauty
Alastair Marriott’s evocation of conflict is caught between gracefulness and tragedy while Wayne McGregor and George Balanchine still shine

Lyndsey Winship

21, Nov, 2018 @11:40 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet: Beauty Mixed Programme review – rose petals and a lust for water
A wild variety of pas de deux fuel this mixed bill, from kitschy Strauss to a duet with a table, plus part of Sleeping Beauty

Lyndsey Winship

27, Jun, 2021 @4:29 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet: Coppélia review – hello, dolly!
Francesca Hayward sparkles in this twee revival, a luminous presence in an inconsequential story about a lifesize doll

Lyndsey Winship

29, Nov, 2019 @1:04 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet review – sublime surprises from Cunningham, Tanowitz and Ashton
Pam Tanowitz’s gloriously rich Everyone Keeps Me is performed alongside bracing and serene revivals from Merce Cunningham and Frederick Ashton

Anna Winter

11, Oct, 2019 @10:09 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet mixed bill review – a winning world premiere from Wayne McGregor
McGregor’s all-male Obsidian Tear, one of his strongest works to date, contrasts with brutal Kenneth MacMillan, plus superbly performed Christopher Wheeldon

Judith Mackrell

29, May, 2016 @1:24 PM

Article image
Ashton at the Royal Ballet review – miraculous moves and romantic rapture
The company’s founder choreographer Frederick Ashton is celebrated in a sensational triple bill that captures his spirit and style

Judith Mackrell

06, Jun, 2017 @12:26 PM

Royal Ballet triple bill – review
A high-impact bill of Glen Tetley and MacMillan's Rite of Spring was topped by Ashton's scintillating Scènes de Ballet, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

30, May, 2011 @3:58 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet mixed bill review – Scarlett and Yanowsky deliver a mesmerising melodrama
A magnificent performance by Zenaida Yanowsky in Liam Scarlett’s Symphonic Dances crowns a programme including Balanchine, Forsythe and Wheeldon

Judith Mackrell

20, May, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
The top 10 dance shows of 2017
Sgt Pepper strutted, Boris Charmatz gave us a buttock-scratching beauty and three men became Lady Macbeth – our critic picks the best dance of the year

Judith Mackrell

18, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM