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Ashton on the Town

Frederick Ashton’s much-loved “Rhapsody” is perhaps epitomised by the scene in which six male dancers hold the lead aloft and parade him around like a king, a ring of glittering ballerinas encircling the reverent display. The plotless ballet, created as a birthday present for the Queen Mother in 1980 and presented here as part of a double bill celebrating the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer, is all about spectacle—in fact, Ashton specifically enlisted Mikhail Baryshnikov, Russian virtuoso extraordinaire, for the starring role to ensure the piece had a central spark powerful enough to ignite the blaze of majesty he envisioned.

Performance

The Royal Ballet: “Rhapsody” / ”The Two Pigeons”

Place

Royal Opera House, London, UK, January 23-30, 2016

Words

Sara Veale

Francesca Hayward and James Hay in Frederick Ashton's “Rhapsody.” Photograph by Helen Maybanks

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This male lead is a daunting one—he must sit (literally at times) head and shoulders above the other dancers. RB principal Steven McRae has turned heads and dazzled critics in the role in recent years, and again he and his firecracker leaps are headlining this rendition. However, four of the seven performances have been entrusted to first soloists, including James Hay, who I saw in a recent matinee. Though he never quite mustered the stamp of cocksure danger Baryshnikov left on the role, Hay was poised all the same, leaving a nice fizz of energy in his wake. He proved particularly adept at holding a triumphant gaze, a knack that went some way in redressing his tendency to anticipate the music rather than dance right in its syncopations; and he demonstrated a fine technical form, churning out cautious but rock-steady triple turns and tour jetés.

Onto Francesca Hayward’s turn as the ballet’s leading lady: she’s shown a quiet, effortless magnetism in every performance of hers I’ve witnessed, and this star quality, coupled with her flair for Ashtonian expressiveness, nurtured a captivating performance from start to finish. Her blissful entrance, in which she whizzed in from the back, fluttering among the men of the ensemble like a bumblebee, was a treat, as were her duets with Hay—whirls of luxurious arabesques and delicate wrists.

The revival comes with a return to the rose gold palette of the original production, with sugary pink tulle for the women and gilded satin for the men. I found the twelve members of the ensemble tight for the most part, both as individuals and as a group. The women’s allegro portion was especially luminous, showcasing Ashton choreography at its best: swift but not quickfire, grand but not bombastic.

Where “Rhapsody” encompasses a celebration of form, “The Two Pigeons” reveals the choreographer’s love for drama. The sentimental number follows a young man and woman whose romance suffers when the former, bored with their relationship, leaves to take up with a group of gypsies. Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell took on the primary roles for the show I saw, and both delivered convincing, charismatic performances, Choe in particular—her cheeky antics at the ballet’s start were just the right amount of cutesy to draw me in, and her sorrowful reaction to her boyfriend’s desertion was moving enough to keep me hooked. The show’s running bird conceit—initiated by the flight of two pigeons across the stage at the start and sustained with a motif of bird-like flits, pecks and flutters—was likewise balanced, keeping to the right side of sweet, as was its conclusion, which sees the lovers reunite in a nicely executed swirl of humility, forgiveness and romance.

The middle of the ballet, however, is irredeemably silly—a cartoonish pageant of gypsy caricatures, complete with bangles, arm cuffs and Aladdin-style vests. The ‘exotic’ accoutrement doesn’t stop there; the bejewelled itinerants also wear haughty expressions—none more so than Itziar Mendizabal, their sultry queen. Her technical proficiency kept the section bearable, flecked as it is with huge penchés and exacting footwork. Still, the reunion between the lovers felt like it couldn’t come fast enough.

Between this run of “The Two Pigeons” and the November one, it seems the Royal Ballet is intent on reaffixing the piece to the repertory. I reckon it could stay put just fine; “Rhapsody,” on the other hand—keep it coming.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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