Frederick Ashton, who ranks as one of the truly great choreographers of the twentieth century, was the first principal choreographer of the Royal Ballet after it was granted a charter in 1957. He became its director in 1963 and his contribution to both the company and ballet was immeasurable. He created everything from the still much celebrated full-length ballet La fille mal gardée to the film The Tales of Beatrix Potter, which now also enjoys a stage version.
He devised what is now affectionately known as The Fred Step but it is the fact that his output was so diverse that make ballet programmes consisting entirely of his works so rewarding. In 2013 the Royal Ballet staged a ‘quintuple bill’ that included the iconic Marguerite and Armand, originally created for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, and now it presents a double bill consisting of two extremely different pieces.
Monotones I and II of 1965 reveal Ashton at the cutting edge in generating pieces of such understated intensity. Both are set to the sublime music of Erik Satie (including his beautiful Gymnopédies), and both involve three dancers. As we watch them perform, we see three people who work together while also conveying a sense of ‘venturing out’ as individuals. In Monotone I there is sometimes also an intriguing sense in which a pas de deux is being prevented from evolving by the presence of a third dancer.
If Monotones I and II epitomise abstract ballet, The Two Pigeons is a two act piece with a clear narrative. It is an incredibly underrated piece, and this will be the first time that the Royal Ballet has staged it for thirty years. The Royal Ballet’s Director Kevin O’Hare says ‘I feel it is the right moment for a new generation of dancers to enjoy the roles within the ballet and a new generation of ballet goers to fall in love with this beautiful and poignant work’.
Set in Bohemian Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, it is a fable about love and lost innocence. A young painter, disillusioned with the life he shares with his fiancée, finds enchantment when a troupe of gypsies arrive in town. This leads him to flirt with a gypsy woman as he contemplates a new life with the group, but ultimately the painter does see the error of his ways and is reunited with his somewhat forgiving fiancée.
Featuring touching pas de deux and group dances from the gypsy troupe, the ballet will also include two live pigeons on stage to represent the central couple (this is a real coup as most productions make do with doves!). It originally premiered on Valentine’s Day 1961, but seems guaranteed to warm the heart just as much in the cold of November and December.
Monotones I and II / The Two Pigeons will appear at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD for seven performances between 18 November and 5 December. Casts vary over the run. For further details and tickets visit the Royal Opera House website.