BRB have just concluded a three-week tour of their Ashton programmes, which they danced first at the Birmingham Rep in the Spring. The venues were Plymouth, Sunderland and Bradford.
To give the bad news first: the audiences were pretty sparse. Plymouth, where not so long ago they used to do very well, was this time very poor indeed with acres of empty seats at most performances. Bradford was a little better but not by very much except for the Saturday matinee. Sunderland, while by no means selling out, was reasonable. The reason for this is hard to judge. Of course, the weather didnít help and the triple bill (Scenes de ballet, Dante Sonata, Enigma Variations) was an unknown quantity to many. Funnily enough and quite inexplicable to me, Two Pigeons has never been a great draw. So the choice of ballets might be partly responsible but surely cannot be the whole answer. Whatever the reasons, coming on top of the dire attendances at the Opera House in the summer and those on the American tour, BRBís management must be becoming very concerned.
To go on to pleasanter things, the ballets were danced to a far higher standard than we saw in Birmingham and, by the end of the tour, there were some really excellent performances, both by individuals and the company as a whole. In the triple bill, Scene de ballet was the least popular, which is what I would have expected since my experience is that it needs to be seen several times to be properly appreciated. It is also very difficult to dance especially on small stages and it requires the grand manner from itís leading dancers, something that has not been much asked of BRB dancers recently. However, by Sunderland some of them had aquired it and made me hope to see the ballet done again when the company get back to using the Hippodrome stage. Dante Sonata was the big success and it was warmly received by audiences everywhere. In truth it does contain some naÔve and old-fashioned movements but these are more than compensated for by the overall impact. How right it was to rescue it from oblivion. Enigma Variations has enough roles for most of the principals, soloists and some of the corps to be given chances to shine. It formed a fitting end to a bill which demonstrated how wide and varied Ashtonís work could be.
The second programme was dominated by The Two Pigeons but, because that is a two-act ballet, it was proceeded by four short divertissements, which mostly were devised by Ashton for galas. Voices of Spring is a virtuoso piece and it took quite a while for the BRB dancers to get used to the style. At the end of the tour we did see some good performances but earlier on some of the partnering looked very dodgy. Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan were written for Lynn Seymour, a hard act to follow. Attempting to follow it were Leticia Muller and Molly Smolen and it was most interesting to compare their two contrasting interpretations, both valid. Mullerís was the more extrovert one with wide sweeping movement and strong gestures, while Smolen was a little more (but not too much) private and restrained. The Walk to the Paradise Garden is not a favourite of mine; it goes on too long and some of the lifts seem very awkward and contrived. I felt that only Vallo and Stollwitzer really made it work although there were interesting attempts at the girlís role by Victoria Marr and Carol-Anne Millar.
Some find The Two Pigeons far too sentimental but those of us who know better regard it as one of Ashtonís finest, containing as it does his most touching, beautiful and the heart-warming pas de deux. Those who do go to see it (but why arenít there more?) seem to be enchanted by it and such was the case this time. I thought all of the casts were good and gave wonderfully committed performances. Each one of the lead gypsy girls was quite terrific and it was easy to understand why the young painter was tempted to stray. At the same time I liked the way most of the ones who played the Young Man (it would be easier to write this if Ashton had given names to his characters) were able to give the impression that they really loved the girl so that the return to her was the right ending. This makes the reconciliation pas de deux even more affecting with not a dry eye in the house. It is often claimed that the gypsy dances are weak but the BRB dancers so obviously enjoyed doing them that the audiences enjoyed them as well. Since I had a good time at all the performances I saw, I ought not to pick out the best. But, since Ann Welsh has already posted a review of it, I am going to say that the Walters-Muller-Parker cast on Thursday in Sunderland danced it as well as one can hope to see it done, with the final pas de deux just perfection. The very last performance of the run by the same cast would have been as good but, for almost the first time, the pigeons got demob happy and changed the script.