Sassy lasses and frisky creatures abound in this double bill from the Royal Ballet, which pairs a restaging of Frederick Ashton’s 1961 “The Two Pigeons” with the premiere of Liam Scarlett’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” The latter has been created on students from the Royal Ballet School, and marks the first time since 2010 (and second time ever) that the institution has given its pupils a professional turn on Covent Garden’s main stage.
Based on a comic opera by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, Scarlett’s new ballet follows the misadventures of Sharp-Ears the fox, whose nose for mischief sees her captured by a gamekeeper and forced to flee. The one-act caper is dotted with sweet storybook touches, including the requisite band of merry fauna, from jaunty insects to bashful bunnies. Its gentle plot and bright aesthetic are well pitched, skewing young without infantilising these teenage dancers.
The choreography flits between ensemble numbers and character-led phrases, both of which give rise to confident performances, particularly Madison Bailey’s bushy-tailed vixen, an exemplar of tidy lines. Daichi Ikarashi’s fleet-footed frog also deserves a mention, and the swarm of diaphanous dragonflies too, who dazzle with sweeping waltzes and arabesques. Again, Scarlett has accurately judged his cast’s wherewithal, tasking them with an astute mix of classroom steps and zesty flourishes and giving clear permission to lean into their characters’ zanier qualities.
Interspecies conflict ensues when a hound forces his affections on Sharp-Ears, and when our protagonist tries to dethrone a priggish cockerel, ruffling feathers in the hen flock. Her capers culminate in a romance with a fellow fox (Liam Boswell), a charming union flecked with self-assured partnering. A dash through the forest with their pups—played by youngsters from the Lower School—tides in a rollicking happily ever after.
“The Two Pigeons”—performed by the Royal Ballet company proper—presents another impish protagonist in Yasmine Naghdi’s Young Girl, who teases the object of her affection (Alexander Campbell) by refusing to sit still as he paints her portrait. She looks on morosely when he dumps her for a glittering gypsy—his desertion echoed by a live pigeon flying away from its mate—but he eventually returns to her hat in hand (cue the triumphant return of the rogue bird). It’s a flimsy story, with a seriously problematic Madonna/whore hang-up, but lively performances, as well as the handsome avian imagery threaded into Ashton’s choreography, just about outshine these shortcomings.
Naghdi’s comedic talent gets a flex in the petulant wriggling and clomping her character mistakes for flirting. These girlish outbursts sit uneasily alongside the poised phrases interspersed in the first half; the grace doesn’t quite transcend the naivety. Far more persuasive are the velvety tussles in the artist’s studio, when Naghdi’s dallying is replaced with dramatic grief, and the elegant embraces of her reunion with Campbell, when she benevolently grants him forgiveness.
Fumi Kaneko makes for a sultry gypsy queen, while Campbell gives a passable performance as the wandering eye. A dash of wit would have elevated his performance from love rat to lovable scamp, giving us a figure other than Naghdi to root for during his redemption arc. Kaneko, on the other hand, is wholly charismatic, even when her seduction is revealed as a cruel ruse. Sassy and bejewelled, she oozes sexy insolence in her shrugged shoulders and cocked head, bringing her coterie of shirtless ruffians to a standstill.
Some of the ballet’s brightest segments occur in the gypsy encampment, with its flowing skirts and flying colours. The female gypsy ensemble delivers nimble footwork topped with pert, whirling shimmies, while Luca Acri churns out some rip-roaring turns in his role as a pickpocket. Not to be outdone, Naghdi’s flock of friends bring their own agile moves, shaking their tail-feathers in sprightly balletic harmony.