BRBís gestures towards the rich heritage of ballet in Britain have sometimes seemed to me to be more wholehearted and more enterprising than those of the Royal. In previous years, for example, BRB celebrated the de Valois centenary by a revival / reconstruction of a work (The Prospect Before Us) not seen for some years, and gave it a generous number of performances, while the Royal gave just a handful of performances of the Rakeís Progress. And where the Royal this season could find space in its schedule for only three public performances of an Ashton programme, BRB are running an Ashton season for two weeks in Birmingham, featuring a number of works not seen for some time. BRB will take the Ashton items on tour later in the year, though not to Covent Garden. The revivals are lovingly done, with the programme explicitly stating who had taught each work. Assistance is credited from Lynn Seymour, Lesley Collier, Antoinette Sibley, and Jean Bedells and the result is a fine set of performances, with the company, including some recent joiners, looking very much at home in the Ashton style.
Perhaps the most unusual revivals are a collection of divertissements made in the 1970s, and probably quite unfamiliar, I would imagine, to many of the audience, as they have not had much performance in the last ten years or so. The 1970s was not a prolific decade for Ashton, but he did produce short pieces for galas. The Thais pdd was one such, which has kept a tenuous place in the repertory: but there are others....
Voices of Spring is a short pas de deux made in 1976, as a divertissement for an opera. The music is delightfully danceable Strauss, and itís a piece of vintage Ashton in its low skimming Ďwalkingí lifts. It was performed by Ambra Vallo and Robert Parker: the partnering wasnít quite as accomplished as it might be, with the lifts looking rather jerky, and the performances lacking musicality, but it was a delightful little nugget nonetheless.
When the RB ran a few Ashton programmes on 1994, it was initially announced in the publicity that Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan would be included, but it never actually appeared. Itís an intriguing piece, where Ashton invokes his memories of Duncan from the 20ís, and evokes the barefoot, impulsive, ecstatic style, and yet somehow still puts his fingerprints on the dance. The opening image - the dancer with wild red hair, draped in flimsy pink chiffon, lying languidly on the stage in a pool of light, initially reminds of one of the pre Raphaelite maidens in the nearby art gallery. The mood changes from the initial idleness to evoke, in a relatively short space of time, Duncan in different moods - lyrical, impulsive, reflective. Molly Smolen is a relatively new joiner to BRB, and on this performance, a definite find - real presence and charm, and the ability to convey mood.
Tweeldedum and Tweedledee from 1977 is Ashton at his most lighthearted and frolicsome. Inside the padded fat costumes are still dancers with some tricky steps to negotiate. The piece provoked a lot of laughter as it should, but admiration too. Angela Paul was a polite bur perky Alice.
The real surprise of the programme for me was A Walk to the Paradise Garden - a powerful and compelling picture of doomed lovers which, to be honest Iíd never heard of. Itís nine minutes, long, the longest of these divertissements, yet Ashton packs so much dance and so much emotion into it - other choreographers would have spun the same out to half and hour or more, and not had half the impact. It was made in 1972 for a gala. It was compellingly performed here by Sabrina Lenzi and Joe Cippola, with notably understated and unselfish partnering from him. Lenzi was apparently weightless: I was particularly struck by a move where he lifts her while lying flat on the floor: you could have been forgiven for thinking she was levitating. It was a very smooth and polished performance, and a very touching one.
All these delectable items prefaced a performance of The Two Pigeons. Monica Zamora was the Girl: she was much funnier and livelier than Iíd expected, a spoiled and indulged child, both petulant and entrancing. It was easy to see why the Young Man (David Justin) was so fond of her: and also to see how her maddening behaviour could drive him away. David Justin gave a nicely detailed reading of the Young Man, rapidly in well over his head without thought of the consequences with the gypsies and with Molly Smolen, the Gypsy Girl, in particular. The first act is in the Young Manís Studio, and is full of entertaining loversí bickering and making up, imitating in dance the white pigeons that fly past the window. Passing gypsies enliven the proceedings, rather too much in view of the Girl, who comes off much the worst in attempts to vie with the Gypsy Girl for her manís attention. But the switch of her mood, when he finally leaves, is characteristically Ashton in its sudden shift from comedy to real pain.
The second act opens at the gypsies camp, where the Gypsy Girl leads on the Young Man entertainingly through an exuberant series of ensemble dances and solos. This is the only point at which there was a sense of the Repís stage being slightly too small, with the men looking as if they might burst off the stage at any moment. Fine fast footwork from Smolen here, and some exuberant dancing from Justin too. After it all, predictably turns nasty, he is cast out and left to find his way back home, chastened, to a subdued and saddened Zamora. The final scene, where he enters carrying a white pigeon, is one of the most tender and affecting pas de deux. It returns to the bird motif of the first act, with the little fluttering movements repeated, but further developed. Zamora and Justin were wholly believable lovers, now a little older and wiser, and negotiated the intricacies of the pdd with confidence and style. As the second white pigeon joins its mate, I felt a sudden need for my hankie- Iím not sure why - this is a happy ending after all. Maybe itís like crying at weddings.
Itís a very light and sweet story, but as ever with Ashton, while he is always ready to make us laugh, there is always a slight astringency. Both the leading characters get to grow up a little, and though it is the most romantic of happy endings, both of them are rather more sober and rueful by the end. Lovely, the audience around me were murmuring to themselves, as we all shuffled out back to reality. Lovely, lovely.