Back in May 2010, Liam Scarlett, then just 24 years old, became the hottest new property in the cluttered world of neoclassical ballet choreography, with the greatly acclaimed première of Asphodel Meadows, his first work (on the main stage) for The Royal Ballet. Since then, he has become the company’s Artist in Residence and has made several more works on The Royal Ballet, with mixed success. Asphodel Meadows set a high benchmark, winning the National Dance Award for Best Classical Choreography. Although the work was revived quickly, in the following season, it had not been seen since. This overdue second revival, with an all-new, young cast, shows that it’s original success was not overstated, returning as a timeless example of elegant, non-narrative neoclassical ballet.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Scarlett's Asphodel Meadows
© ROH, 2019 | Bill Cooper

The enigmatic title references the section of the mythological underworld described by Homer as the repository for the souls of ordinary mortals. A strong classical base underpins Scarlett’s choreography but it is routinely accented by modern twists and extensions, utilising simple devices like the harmonised straightening of arms, opening out hands with fingers suddenly flexed in striking unison. Scarlett chose to choreograph to Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in D Minor, which has a myriad of influences from ebullient jazz, Gershwin-style, through gamelan, to melodic Mozartian themes. The conversation between the twin pianos was superbly articulated by Robert Clark and Kate Shipway.

Scarlett uses the three movements as the imperative for contrasting duets, each for a different couple from amongst the cast of twenty: beginning with a flowing, passionate series of embraces and lifts for Fumi Kaneko and Calvin Richardson, in which she seems to fold into him like moving origami, establishing idiosyncratic and beautifully contrived patterns; followed by a slower, edgier duet for Mayara Magri and Tristan Dyer; and concluding with a sensitive, quicksilver pas de deux for Sae Maeda and Leo Dixon. Scarlett’s choreography is full of dramatic variation and subtlety and these pas de deux were framed by memorable group dances. The movement is enriched by John Macfarlane’s exciting, abstract designs and Jennifer Tipton’s varied lighting, from blindingly stark to enigmatically muted.

Beatriz Stix Brunell and Reece Clarke in Ashton's The Two Pigeons
© ROH, 2019 | Bill Cooper

Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons is another work that remained unperformed by The Royal Ballet for some time (it had been absent from the repertory for thirty years until Christopher Carr’s re-staging, in 2015). The narrative is hardly a story for our times, although much of Ashton’s beautiful choreography is a joy, irrespective of the story it represents. The two pigeons of the title are an allegorical representation of a pair of troubled young lovers but the ballet is essentially also about two parties, one in each act: the first when a group of friends and a travelling band of passing gypsies make merry in the young couple’s cavernous studio garret; and the second at a gypsy camp. Jacques Dupont’s designs economically reuse the huge drapes in the former as a strange, incongruous feature of the encampment. It is best not to dwell too long on the gypsies who must either be Hispanic, or closely related to pirates, judging by their garish, bejewelled costumes and ubiquitous bandannas and earrings; or on the stereotype that they are robbers who joyfully steal a fob watch from a hapless passer-by.

The pigeons are a hard act to match, being always slightly unpredictable. In this performance, one flew into the orchestra pit, which must have brought back memories to the conductor, Barry Wordsworth, since a bird once sat on his head, in similar circumstances, more than 30 years’ ago! Despite the excitement of a stray pigeon, André Messager’s descriptive, music-hall score was lusciously observed.

Reece Clarke and Beatriz Stix Brunell in Ashton's The Two Pigeons
© ROH, 2019 | Bill Cooper

As the young lovers, Reece Clarke and Beatriz Stix-Brunell were a delightful pairing and they danced Ashton’s expressive steps, including a motley surfeit of birdlike motifs, with great mutual charm. Claire Calvert was suitably seductive as the gypsy girl, who temporarily lures away the young man, dancing with an impressive shoulder-rolling, chest-shimmying sensuality. Her contest with the young girl as they vie for the young man’s affections was - as ever - the comedy highlight. Lukas Bjørneboe Braendsrød was physically imposing as the gypsy girl’s lover.

The key observations from this double bill are firstly that Scarlett is well appointed to provide a continuum of the English style to enhance Ashton’s legacy at The Royal Ballet, given that there are similarities in the delicacy and speed of their steps and the innate musicality that drives their choreography; and secondly that there was not a single principal dancer on show in this programme (excepting principal character artist, Kristen McNally as the concerned Neighbour in The Two Pigeons) and yet both ballets were exceptionally well performed by this mix of First Soloists and Soloists in the lead roles. Good omens for the future, all around.