Monday, 18 January 2016

The Royal Ballet's Double Bill


The Royal Ballet, Rhapsody and The Two Pigeons, Royal Opera House, 16 Jan 2016


A trip to Covent Garden is always something of an occasion.

First, the tickets arrive in a smart folder sponsored by Rolex, the "Official Watch". They carry a hologram and are printed on expensive paper. They look more like the title to an investment rather than a voucher for a show.

The redevelopment of the Covent Garden piazza following the relocation of the fruit and veg market to Nine Elms has transformed the neighbourhood from a place of manual labour into a playground with expensive shops and restaurants where once there were lorries, warehouses and pubs with crazy opening hours. You have to resist the lures of luxury chocolates and cashmere cardigans to reach the revolving doors and pass an equally tempting shop of Royal Opera House merchandise to reach the box office.

That box office looks and feels like the counter of a private bank with its elegantly groomed and exquisitely mannered staff. The queue for the cloakroom is divided into aisles so you never have to wait more than a few minutes to deposit or retrieve your coat and hand luggage. Instead of formidable flights of stairs from Floral Street there are lifts and escalators to whisk you to whichever part of the auditorium you are seated.

The auditorium looks and feels as it has always done with its elegant curtains and royal monogram even though it will have been renovated and redecorated many times but the bars and restaurants along the way are opulent.

I miss the old House with its all pervading smell of over ripe fruit and vegetables and unofficial flower throws. At least the London ballet crowd remain.  The twos and threes of office workers straight from work in their buns and twin sets with earnest stares who never seem to age.

Also the same rituals.  The short clap when the maestro appears, the ripple when the ballerina and male principal first appear on stage and at revolution 27 of Legnani's 32 fouettés in Swan Lake and sustained applause with cheers at the very end. The bewigged flunkies in their red liveries have gone but the order of precedence in which flowers are presented seems to be very much as it has always been.

As my readers will have surmised from the lack of recent updates my day job has kept me very busy lately. I had spent more or less every spare moment since the Christmas holidays preparing for a hearing which left no time for watching ballet and hardly any for class. That hearing took place on Friday and lasted the whole day.  To restore my spirits I checked the Royal Opera House's website for tickets and found there were still some left for the Rhapsody, Two Pigeons double bill. One was in the middle of the amphitheatre stalls that 50 years experience of theatre going has taught me to be one of the best parts in the House.

The two ballets are by Sir Frederick Ashton but from different stages of his career.  He staged the Two Pigeons in 1961 with the late Christopher Gable and Lynn Seymour in the title roles and created Rhapsody in 1980 as a birthday gift for the Queen Mother. Somehow I had missed both of those works when they had previously been performed so this double bill was a double first for me.

The matinee started with Rhapsody to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  The lead dancers in the first performance were Mikhail Baryshnikow and Lesley Collier so you can imagine the weight of expectations on the shoulders of their young successors.  James Hay and Francesca Hayward were brilliant in those roles as were the other twelve dancers who supported them including several soloists. Rhapsody was one of Ashton's last ballets but it reminded me of many of his early works with his spectacular turns and jumps for the males and the dainty pointe work and delicate arm and hand movements. for the women. The costumes designed by William Chappell for a set created by Ashton himself were gorgeous.  The dancers, orchestra and pianist richly deserved their deafening and sustained applause.

The Two Pigeons as re-staged by Ashton to Messager's music is quite charming.  It was originally created by Louis Mérante for the ballet of the Paris Opera in 1886.  Ashton changed the story and Lanchbery adapted and arranged the score. Two of my all time favourite dancers, Lynn  Seymour and Christopher Gable, were in the original performance at Covent Garden on 14 Feb 1961 and it must have been wonderful.  The leads on Saturday were Alexander Campbell and Yuhui Choe. I will tell you how they got on below

There is lots of humour such as the echoing of the pigeon steps by the young girl, the dance competitions and even some slapstick such as the sudden removal of the artist's chair.  A particularly delightful touch are provided by the trained pigeons, Toad, Mole and Bianca who flew past on stage and sat on the artist's shoulder right on cue.  Ironically, the last show that I had seen from Covent Garden was Carlos Acosta's Carmen (see Au Revoir but not Adieu 18 Nov 2015). Comparisons are odious and there is no bigger fan of Acosta on this planet than me but if the Royal Ballet wants to dance gypsies Ashton shows the way to do it.

Shortly after the performance Campbell tweeted:

I replied
Although I did not know it at the time the magnificent Janet McNulty also saw the show and she wrote:
Now I don't agree with Janet on everything. How can I? She's a Liverpudlian and I'm a Mancunian. She likes football and I cricket. She votes one way and I another. But in our appreciation of this performance we are as one.

It will be streamed to cinemas on the 26 Jan 2016. Now if you get a chance to see it you really must.

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