Both ballets on this Frederick Ashton double bill were performed in different programmes at the Royal Opera House in 2015. Rhapsody (1980) is much enhanced by changes made to the  set, which now follows the choreographer’s original design. The rather drab colours of last year’s costumes have been replaced by pink, cream and pale yellow in echo of the 1980 designs by William Chappell that were subsequently considered over ornate. Jewels sparkle, once again, in the women’s hair. Rhapsody is here paired with The Two Pigeons, revived last November.

Francesca Hayward and James Hay in <i>Rhapsody</i> © ROH, 2016 | Helen Maybanks
Francesca Hayward and James Hay in Rhapsody
© ROH, 2016 | Helen Maybanks
 

Rhapsody, created as an 80th birthday gift to The Queen Mother and set to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, was also a showcase for dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. ‘He does too much and does it alone,’ wrote dance critic Arlene Croce at the time (as quoted in Julie Kavanagh’s 1996 biography of Ashton, Secret Muses), ‘without blending into an overall conception.’ The ballet is disjointed. It has something of the uneasy atmosphere, around the men, of the choreographer’s Scènes de ballet of 1948. But as danced by James Hay and Francesca Hayward, its central pas de deux, to the most melodic section of the music, is piercingly beautiful.

James Hay has ballon and he displays great arabesques en l’air in all directions, as required. At the moment he looks almost more comfortable when dancing with Hayward, in the pas de deux for example, than when dancing on his own. He is also attentive to the six other women as he summons each of them to movement, with a raised arm, from their croisé position.

Francesca Hayward is a dancer of whom it has been said: ‘She has something that can’t be taught.’ She has it, here, in the lightness of her bourrés, in her hands and in the way she moves her head. Most of all, perhaps, she has it in a smile which suggests that what she is doing gives her tremendous pleasure. Her smile at the end of this ballet is gently ironic as, with nothing more than a timed flick of the wrist, she upstages the flamboyance of a partner who has also been, in choreographic terms, her rival.

If the Ashton of Rhapsody was concerned with steps (‘Bring all your steps,’ he told Baryshnikov), in The Two Pigeons (1961) he is as much a man of the theatre. This layered reworking of a French ballet from 1886, with music by André Messager, shows a young man (Alexander Campbell) temporarily forsake a young girl (Yuhui Choe) as he pursues a gypsy (Itziar Mendizabal) for her sexual allure. All three dancers, and Tomas Mock as the gypsy girl’s lover, bring emotional complexity to the piece. With moments of humour at the start, and with two live pigeons (doves, really) adding to its charm, in the end it is a ballet that raises more questions than it answers

This is especially true of the final scene of reconciliation as Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell perform it. After slowly rising from a Pavlova Dying Swan-like pose into which she has withdrawn (a sign with Ashton that the stakes are high), Choe smiles again. But all through what has been called ‘the most poignant romantic encounter in dance’ Campbell shows the young man continue to weep, though his partner is unaware of it, his remorse. The climax to this encounter is something that has to be seen, and experienced, not described.