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Asphodel Meadows returns

When “Asphodel Meadows” premiered in 2010, it marked choreographer Liam Scarlett’s first commission for the Royal Opera House main stage. The ballet received an enthusiastic response from both audience and critics, and won the National Dance Award for Best Classical Choreography. Although revived in 2011 it has not been shown since—Scarlett’s name and choreography is, on the other hand, now well associated with the company.

Performance

The Royal Ballet perform “Asphodel Meadows / The Two Pigeons”

Place

The Royal Opera House, London, UK, January 18, 2019

Words

Rachel Elderkin

The Royal Ballet performing “Asphodel Meadows,” by Liam Scarlett. Photograph by Johan Persson

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Why “Asphodel Meadows” has been so long absent from the Royal’s repertoire is anyone’s guess —it is, in a word, sublime. Every step in this work has been so lovingly strung together that the whole piece unfolds as naturally, and gently, as one long outpouring of breath.

Taking inspiration from Greek mythology, “Asphodel Meadows” refers to the part of the underworld where ordinary souls reside after death. It shifts its tone in an instant, following closely the changing moods of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor—so much so that the two feel inseparable. This playful indecisiveness holds the attention, the viewer never certain where the piece will turn next. One moment the company flits lightly across the stage, the next it slows and melts, pulled into mournful introspection by the deep melodies of the strings.

Created for twenty dancers, with three lead couples, this is a work that shows the Royal at its best. Scarlett’s classically inspired movement is complex yet fluid, and while its differing moods present some challenging shifts of dynamic, it’s a challenge the dancers seem to relish—there is an ease to their movement that is at one with the fluid continuity of Scarlett’s work.

Throughout “Asphodel Meadows” the movement is exquisitely constructed, and in the duets for its three lead couples Scarlett’s choreography excels. Bodies spiral and wrap, the movement led by a lyrical quality that fills the classical steps with a stunning softness and freedom. As ever Marianela Nuñez, dancing the first duet with Ryoichi Hirano, perfectly embodies this sense of easy grace. Their numerous lifts slip seamlessly one into the other and then delicately slide back into Scarlett’s ever-flowing choreography.

Meaghan Grace Hinkis’ and Luca Acri’s duet with its fast footwork and sharp piqués has a brighter presence that impels the work towards its more uplifting conclusion, while the central duet, danced by Laura Morera and William Bracewell takes a gentler tone. Their eyes downcast, Morera and Bracewell are at once together and separate, their pas considered yet sorrowful, and their gaze meeting only as the duet draws to a close.

“Asphodel Meadows” is rich in content, beautifully danced and delicately constructed. It is peppered with moments that catch the attention and elicit that small, quick intake of breath (for me, it is those instants where two dancers are caught in silhouette upstage—like a brief insight into a private encounter). It is, for good reason, a work that propelled Scarlett’s choreographic career and while it may have taken eight years to return to the Royal’s repertoire, “Asphodel Meadows” is a work that’s worth the wait.

The Two Pigeons
Lauren Cuthbertson and Vadim Muntagirov in “The Two Pigeons” by Frederick Ashton. Photograph by Bill Cooper

Frederick Ashton’s “The Two Pigeon’s” may not seem the most obvious piece to follow in a double bill, but this playful narrative ballet from 1961 proves to be a charming complement. Like “Asphodel Meadows,” it’s a popular piece (revived for the Royal Ballet in 2015 due to demand). Perhaps that popularity has something to do with its comical tone or the array of bird-like steps Ashton casually incorporated into some deceptively difficult choreography—or perhaps it’s down to the show stealing presence of the two real-life pigeons which, on this particular night, pull off a perfectly executed performance.

Whatever the reason for its appeal, ‘The Two Pigeons’ is an undeniably enjoyable piece and the Royal’s lighthearted approach is, in my opinion, key to this. Without it, “The Two Pigeons” could easily look twee, even bordering on old-fashioned.

Lauren Cuthbertson’s charm as the young girl is, however, hard to resist. She achieves the perfect balance between girlish sweetness and humour, one moment fawning over her boyfriend (Vadim Muntagirov), the next affecting the bird-like twitches that punctuate Ashton’s choreography with a playful wryness. Her affectionate nuzzles, flexed feet, ankle scratches and jutting elbows are at once endearing and comical.

Muntagirov is an equally charming counterpoint, neat and assured in his movement. He plays his part as the young man/artist in a suitably foppish and foolish manner, easily seduced by Laura Morera’s slinking, shimmering gypsy. It is a role for which she is brilliantly suited, flitting through Ashton’s complex choreography with a sharp and dangerous vivaciousness.

It’s a spirit carried through into the vibrant gypsy scene of Act Two which the company perform with skirt swishing flair, even if their fast-paced movement could, at times, be tighter.

Despite the very obvious physical parallels that Ashton’s choreography draws between the young lover’s courtship and “The Two Pigeons” glimpsed beyond the apartment window, this remains a sentimental narrative, driven by human emotions. Love, jealousy and betrayal are all wrapped within the guise of comedy, then served alongside a slice of social commentary—compared to the free spirited gypsies, Ashton’s prim and preening caricature of upper class society brings to mind an aviary of caged birds and, given that, it’s unsurprising that Muntagirov’s young artist jumps upon his brief opportunity to escape.

Among the fun, quirky touches, “The Two Pigeons” remains humanly relatable and, ultimately, it’s this that helps it stand the test of time. Of course, a touching conclusion and some rather brilliant performances from its lead dancers—and pigeons—constitute a large part of that.

Together, “Asphodel Meadows” and “The Two Pigeons” compose an impressive double bill. Created nearly fifty years apart, these works by the Royal’s founder choreographer and current artist-in-residence sit comfortably side by side—two pieces that each, in their own way, show the vibrancy and versatility of this company’s dancers.

Rachel Elderkin


Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dance artist and writer based in London. She is a contributor to The Stage and a member of the UK's Critics' Circle. She has previously written for publications including Fjord Review, Exeunt, British Theatre Guide, londondance.com, the Skinny (Scotland) and LeftLion (Nottingham) where she was Art Editor.

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