Newspaper article International New York Times

A Romantic Revival on the Wing at Royal Ballet ; Ashton's 'Two Pigeons' Endures as Exploration of the Nature of Intimacy

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Romantic Revival on the Wing at Royal Ballet ; Ashton's 'Two Pigeons' Endures as Exploration of the Nature of Intimacy

Article excerpt

Alastair Macaulay reviews Frederick Ashton's piece at the Royal Opera House in London.

Imagery in choreography is often easy to miss. Who in the audience really sees the eagle, snake, moon, emeralds, rubies and unicorns that are said by Balanchine connoisseurs to be present in his ballets?

Early in Frederick Ashton's "The Two Pigeons," however, we see real pigeons fly across the stage, and when the leading couple, the Painter and his model, the Young Girl, liken themselves to the birds, we see the point at once. What's astonishing is how Ashton then amplifies this simile. He makes other dancers behave pigeonishly, sustains pigeon behavior as a metaphor and turns comedy into deeply affecting pathos. What begins as a joke (humans as performing pigeons!) turns into a profound statement of sexual love and passionate reconciliation (man and woman as turtledoves).

For many of us, this 1961 two-act work is a beloved, sometimes heartbreaking drama. The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden here is staging its first major revival of it in 30 years; a broadcast of the Jan. 26 performance will be shown in New York and other American cities on March 23.

The infectious score (arranged by Ashton's frequent collaborator John Lanchbery) is by Andre Messager, one of the great French melodists of the era of Georges Bizet and Leo Delibes. The story and title derive from one of Jean de La Fontaine's 17th-century fables. In French, the word "pigeon" has two senses: a dove-like bird, but also a dupe, victim or fall guy. Both aspects are apparent in Ashton's ballet.

Ashton begins his version of the story in a painter's studio in Paris; through a wide skylight, we see the cityscape. The period is the late 19th century of the music -- the Young Girl and her friends wear the midi-length ballet dresses painted then by Degas, which, implying slight bustles, complement the curves of the young women's figures.

At first, the ballet's central image is a comic simile. When the heroine -- who is the Painter's model and, implicitly, his live-in mistress -- spots a pigeon flying outside the studio, she responds cutely, as if to say: "That's us! Look how like pigeons we two can be!" If you wonder how humans can move like pigeons, she shows you. She puffs out her chest, juts her head forward and back, places her wrists on her hips and flaps her elbows like wings, flutters her feet in the air like wingtips, flexes those feet and struts on them, and in arabesques and jumps, expands her line to suggest the shape and trajectory of flight.

Both adorable and petty, her movement shows us how she at once irritates and enchants. Ashton is the most kinesthetically affecting of ballet choreographers. Just watch how every part of her is involved in this full-bodied pigeon imitation, and some fiber in us responds as if in potent inner recognition. …

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