Passion from pirates to pigeons

Passion in symmetry: Robert Parker as the young man and Nao Sakuma as the young woman  . .  and the two pigeons as themselves. Pictures: Bill Cooper

Spring Passions

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


I HAVE a feeling that if Robert Parker was asked to dance to the Nokia ringtone he would make it look not just good but spectaular.

He is a little like the Ryan Giggs of ballet defying age and time to carry on producing vintage performances which leave others trailing in his wake.

Pair him first with Nao Sakuma as the young artist's model and lover and then Elisha Willis as the Gypsy seductress and Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons  becomes a rare delight.

It is a ballet embedded in BRB's soul since it's premiere in 1961 by the Royal Ballet Touring Company, forerunner of the BRB. It sees itself as the guardian of the work and on opening night discharged its duty with distinction.

The tale is simple, a young artist (Parker) is painting his fidgety lover in a rather large garret (no artist should be without one) overlooking 19th century Paris. She will not sit still and teases him and then is delighted by two white pigeons which fly past the window leading to a restless pas de deux imitating the birds who quarrel and make up.

Friends and neighbours arrive and then, as they presumably did in Bohemian Paris, a passing band of Gypsies, led by Matthew Lawrence, misunderstand a wave from the window and pop up for a dance.

The Gypsy leader's girlfriend, danced by Elisha Willis, is an advertisement for lust on legs as she targets our young, innocent hero putting his hormones into overdrive.

When his lover banishes the Gypsies our artist follows them to their camp where he is resented, robbed, beaten and finally humiliated by his sultry temptress.

Poetry in motion: Robert Parker and Nao Sakuma as the lovers in Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons

But as he limps home a pigeon greets him and he returns, with his pigeon on his shoulder, to his lover a broken chastened but wiser man – and she has him back as his pigeon is joined by another in a symbolic ending paying homage to Jean de la Fonataine's fable Les Deux Pigeons from the 1670s .

It is a lyrical tale with an easy to follow narrative and strong characters with Parker again superb.

Nao is the epitome of a ballerina, pretty, demur and technically outstanding. But, as the young girl, as she has shown in other roles such as Lise in Ashton's La fille mal gardée, (review) she can dance with a great sense of fun and mischief given half the chance to show her acting ability.

This is a role that not only gives her that chance but she can also have anger, as she competes with the Gypsy temptress and tender moments of despair and sadness when she is first deserted by her lover then welcomes his return.

Parker's relationship with Elisha Willis is torrid rather then tender. The pair were teamed up last week as the shy, nervous, innocent Will Mossop and the old maid Maggie in Hobson's Choice and once again combine fine acting and dancing in a memorable performance.

It is a busy night for Elisha who starts off the evening being ravished as Chloë in Daphnis and Chloë and ends up being ravishing as the Gypsy girl among the pigeons.

Matthew Lawrence provides a swarthy menace as her lover while Tzu-Chao Chou is the cheeky, light fingered Gypsy boy who will nick your shadow if you are not watching.

The original ballet dates back to 1886 written by lesser known French composer André Messager who has the distinction of being appointed conductor at the Folies Bergère and at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden – not at the same time incidentally. His version as set in 18th Century Greece full of intrigue and disguise.

Ashton moved it to Paris in the 1880s, when it was written, and simplified the tale to one of a strong, simple love story. A man tempted and deceived by the charms of the flesh returning to the affairs of the heart. It opened, appropriately enough for such a romantic love story, on Valentine's Day, 1961.

On the beach: Iain Mackay as Daphnis and Elisha Willis as Chloë get ready to live happily ever after

Meanwhile, this time set in Greece, Spring Passions opens with Daphnis and Chloë which in the original tale was set in Lesbos. I must admit I am not really a nymphs and shepherds sort of bloke so, despite a sumptuous score from Maurice Ravel – he of the Bolero – and some fine dancing it felt more like the ballet equivalent of an etude.

With the modern, colourful costumes and some very modern looking dance, if this had been some celebrated international contemporary dance company we would all of being Ooohing and Ahhing at the genius of it all which is a compliment to Ashton's choreography in a production which premiered 61 years ago.

Iain Mackay as the goatherd Daphnis vows his love to shepherdess Chloë, Elisha Willis, putting in a double shift.  before the temple of Pan but herdsman Dorkon, Matthew Lawrence, warming up for his Gypsy role later, also loves her which leads to a dance-off which our hero of the title wins.

End of story – except a passing band of pirates arrive, as they do, and carry Chloë off. Daphnis is distraught but three of Pan's nymphs appear - the original Pan's People for older readers - and invoking Pan's aid Daphnis is off to rescue his love.

He will have to be quick though as after she forced to dance – remarkably well I must say – and her hands bound Btyaxis, (Mathias Dingman) the pirate chief - ahharr Jim lad - is about to have his wicked way with her . . . centre stage no less.

Luckily he bindings magically fall away and Pan (Benjamin Soerel)  appears and the pirates scarper – as you probably would at the sight of a creature half man half goat with horns.

At daybreak Daphnis, who is a bit of a wimp if truth be told, and got nowhere near rescuing her, is found exhausted on the shore but Pan reunites our young lovers and everyone dances in celebration.

There is one fabulous dance when a cast of thirty or so, in unison, go through a fast, complex routine, with quick steps which was really impressive and the dancing throughout was wonderful from the principals, including Ambra Vallo as the flirty married girl from the town who tries to seduce Daphnis – there is a lot of it going on this week. Spring Passion or what!

In both ballets the designs, by John Craxton in the first and Jaques Dupont in The Two Pigeons are impressive, cartoon in the first and Notre Dame gothic in the second while the lighting in Daphnis, designed by Peter Teigen, and by Mark Jonathan in Two Pigeons, created a changing world of their own.

The excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia were conducted by Koen Kessels but the real stars were the two white pigeons who did all that was asked without a coo of protest. They came from Amazing Animals by the way. To 03-03-12.

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile from the pigeon loft . . .


LOVE was in the air during two spectacular ballets staged by the BRB in a double bill that simply oozed quality, superb dancing and beautiful music.

Contrasting in style, The Two Pigeons and Daphnis and Chloe featured young lovers parted then emotionally reunited, with a dash of thrilling drama provided by a band of gyspies in one and pirates in the other.

Frederick Ashton's choreography is brilliant in the two stories, so different in content yet with similar happy endings, and there were cries of 'bravo, bravo' from the audience at the final curtain.

The Two Pigeons, with music by Andre Messager, is a classic, telling how a young artist (Robert Parker) is tempted away from his finacee (Nao Sakuma) by a beautiful gypsy girl (Elisha Willis).

At one point a real white pigeon flies from the rooftop of the studio in Bohemian Paris, drawing gasps from the audience, and later Parker dances with the bird on his shoulder before, in the dramatic final scene, another white pigone descends onto the top of a chair, on stage, alongside his mate, representing how the lovers have been reconciled.

Daphnis and Chloe, with music by Maurice Ravel, is a fantasy tale set on an island in ancient Greece, where a young girl, Chloe (Elisha Willis) is kidnapped by a band of pirates, and in great peril at the hands of the lusty brigands before being rescued by Pan and reunited with her goat-herd lover, Daphnis (Iain Mackay).

It is a delightful ballet of great contrasts, with exciting dancing. In both stories there were stunning costumes and impressive lighting.

Music was provided by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Koen Kessels. To 03.03.12

Paul Marston 

*For expected casting for each performance 


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