Can anyone ever get bored of watching the infinite ways that Sir Frederick Ashton can entwine two, or three dancers’ arms in a pleasing manner? I certainly cannot. Good thing too, as this Ashton programme at The Royal Ballet shows the founding choreographer’s versatility of subject while never scrimping on that unmistakeable style. 

Yasmine Naghdi, Tristan Dyer and Emma Maguire in <i>Monotones I</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Yasmine Naghdi, Tristan Dyer and Emma Maguire in Monotones I
© ROH | Bill Cooper
The programme opens with Monotones I and II, meditative abstractions set to Erik Satie’s sleepy Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. Watching the Emma Macguire, Yasmine Naghdi and Tristan Dyer in Monotones I sink into deep arabesques, taking pleasure in their symmetry was like observing some strange and solemn alien rite, full of mystic portent. Marianela Núñez, Valeri Hristov and Edward Watson were similarly hypnotic in Monotones II and the precision of Núñez’s placement, from the extreme six o’ clock arabesque that opens the piece to the restrained arabesques croisés that she rotates, seemed to be filled with importance or meaning or something unknown that I can only guess at. This is dance on its most simple plane; placement of a body in a way that expresses things that words can only fumble over.

As the curtain fell there was an almost imperceptible sigh, about as loud as a heartbeat, that signalled our disappointment that the magical moment was to recede and the real world, with its lights and noises and hurly-burly was about to intrude once more. Monotones has been criticised for its lack of climax or emphasis, but for me it was a relief in these times of frantic over-stimulation to be able to sit and watch something so calm and unapologetically beautiful.

Royal Ballet director Kevin O’ Hare has said that the ballet the public asks him to revive most often is The Two Pigeons. I can see why. Last seen in 1985, it is comic and charming and, in this revival, danced beautifully with real delight. Ashton took the story from a previous incarnation produced in Paris in 1886 with music by André Messager and distilled both the score and the narrative to a simple and enjoyable allegory. It premiered on Valentine’s Day in 1962 with Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, along with two unnamed birds in the title roles. 

As the human lovers, Lauren Cuthbertson and Vadim Muntagirov dart about like their feathered friends, making wings and pecking and scratching at the air like city pigeons. Laura Morera was a sultry and believable gypsy girl who seemed in her element with the delicate speed of the movement. I thoroughly enjoyed the dance-off between Lauren Cuthberson’s Young Girl and Laura Morera’s Gypsy Girl, vying for the attentions of the Young Man. Is this was the first example of a dance battle on stage? Perhaps it is touches like this that keep the ballet from becoming dated or too saccharine to seem relevant today.

Vadim Muntagirov and Laura Morera in <i>The Two Pigeons</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Vadim Muntagirov and Laura Morera in The Two Pigeons
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The entire company, particularly the gypsies in Act II, were full of exuberance and seemed to thoroughly enjoy performing the ballet. The choreography seemed a little fast for most of the dancers, only Laura Morera seemed to be cresting the music comfortably, but they each gave it their best shot. 

The reconciliation pas de deux at the end of Act II rivals any of Ashton’s other works for tender impact on the lacrimal glands. The lovers, now matured in their disappointments, embraced gently and it was in this pas de deux where the most moving dancing was to be seen. However, the big highlight of this scene was not the human lovers, but the animals. There are not many ballets where a choreographer allows one of the biggest musical climaxes in the whole score to be performed by a bird flying across the stage, but (to ruin the surprise somewhat) this is indeed what happens. A huge crescendo of that famous adage swells from the orchestra and we watch a dove as it joins its mate on the chair and the moment was so perfect, so sweet, such an antidote to all the greyness and cynicism in the world, that the audience gasped (again) and a warm contented feeling settled in my stomach.

Vadim Muntagirov and Lauren Cuthbertson in <i>The Two Pigeons</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Vadim Muntagirov and Lauren Cuthbertson in The Two Pigeons
© ROH | Bill Cooper

It makes one wonder what other gems Kevin O’Hare would dust off if subjected to enough pressure from audiences – so get your requests in now for the season to come and sooner or later you just might be rewarded with a glimpse of a half forgotten masterpiece.