Birmingham Royal Ballet brought their Spring Season double bill to the London Coliseum for two days only, on March 13th and 14th. The programme offered two pieces by the English choreographic master Sir Frederick Ashton. Ashton is correctly recognised as a diverse dance-maker, with works ranging from the divinely abstract Symphonic Variations to the expressively lush A Month in the Country (being performed at the Opera House this summer). The two works shown – Daphnis and Chloë and The Two Pigeons – are based upon existing narratives that inspired the movement.

Ambra Vallo as the Young Girl and Chi Cao as the Young Man in Two Pigeons, © Bill Cooper
Ambra Vallo as the Young Girl and Chi Cao as the Young Man in Two Pigeons,
© Bill Cooper

The original Daphnis and Chloë was choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1912 for the Ballets Russes, with a heavyweight opening night cast featuring Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina. The choreography was supported by the impressionistic Ravel score, which is still recognised as one of the composer’s best works. Ashton’s version premièred in 1951 with an equally illustrious first cast of Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. The work, originally by the ancient Greek writer Longus, tells the story of two lovers who face numerous obstacles before their path to togetherness is realised.

The piece itself doesn’t fare so well in 2012. The company dancers did the work justice, but I’m not too sure if their favour was repaid. Jenna Roberts as Chloë had a wonderful ‘look’, but didn’t convey any real depth in her dramatic performance. Jamie Bond as Daphnis was a striking shepherd with a secure technique, proving that he could cope with a far meatier role.

The work looked dated – but sadly not dated like a timeless masterpiece from the early 20th century: more like something lukewarm from the 1950s. The lighting throughout was arresting and kept reminding me of the Hollywood heyday of the musical film, which made me realise that although Daphnis and Chloë looks quite like an incredibly good dream sequence from a Gene Kelly movie, it isn’t. The ballet genre often gets a hard rap for poor storytelling, and this was a perfect example. I haven’t read the Longus text, but I assume it would leave me feeling more satisfied and less confused in the end.

Next up was The Two Pigeons, which was created for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable in 1961. Ashton used an abridged version of the André Messager score that accompanied the original ballet by Louis Mérante in 1886. Both versions take the fable by Jean de la Fontaine as their basis, with Mérante using an 18th-century backdrop, and Ashton choosing 19th-century Paris. The tale is about relationships, and how boredom can compel people to flee, only to realise later that what they really desire is what they had before.

I had higher hopes for this second work, having been familiar with it as an impressionable student – and though my expectations weren‘t totally quashed, my perspective was less gullible, life having dealt me numerous blows of realism since 1995.

The work looks attractive, especially the opening scene, which had a large window overlooking the rooftops of Paris (very Le jeune homme et la mort), and who isn’t a sucker for animals onstage? The two white pigeons did an admirable job.

Ambra Vallo as the Young Girl had a naïve charm about her characterisation, and what Chi Cao’s portrayal of the Young Man may have lacked dramatically, was more than made up for by his clean and precise dancing. Carol-Anne Millar offered a very exuberant Gypsy Girl partnered by Iain Mackay as her Lover, which is too small a role for a dancer of his calibre. The corps de ballet did an admirable job throughout – but some of their garish costumes seemed excessive.

My issue with The Two Pigeons – and, in fact, with the whole evening – was its distinct lack of style. When a choreographer’s nuance is so well recognised that it becomes theorised (‘Ashtonian’), the people setting and rehearsing the works, as well as the dancers executing them, have a responsibility to communicate the necessary technique. For me, clarity of movement and exceptional footwork are key to the portrayal of any Ashton work, and both were often missing this evening.

As an avid fan, it pains me to say it, but perhaps not all of Ashton’s works should be shown in the contemporary era: even geniuses have weak moments in their repertoires. It must be remembered that not all members of the audience will be familiar with Ashton’s most enduring pieces – and tonight, these people may have left the theatre with the wrong impression.