Monotones I and II/ The Two Pigeons: Royal Ballet

This mixed program pairs Ashton’s two lauded minimalist pas de trois with a revival of his comic narrative ballet, The Two Pigeons. It’s a perfect demonstration of his range as a choreographer, though both feature his trademark musicality. I was lucky enough to be at the Royal Opera House on a Saturday afternoon for the second to last performance of the run, which featured several dancers I’d never seen before.

Courtesy of ROH/Tristram Kenton
Courtesy of ROH/Tristram Kenton

The word ‘monotone’ doesn’t exactly inspire excitement, but Ashton clearly didn’t want to excite anyone when he created Monotones I and II. To the audience, they are soothing – inducing a state of serenity akin to a hot bubble bath – but for the six dancers they are anything but. Like most extended adagio pieces, they require strength, control and absolute synchronicity.
I is danced by Emma Maguire, Yasmine Naghdi and Tristan Dyer in hideous yellow/green lycra bodysuits and swimming caps. (Sorry, I just had to get that out of the way. I don’t understand these costumes at all.) Erik Satie’s music is sleepy and hypnotic, punctuated with exotic percussion. All three dancers move impressively as one, whether sinking into penchée arabesque in line or doing a Wili-style chug across the stage.
Monotones II arguably makes more of an impression – simply because it is set to Satie’s more famous (and incredibly beautiful) Gymnopédies, and features two male dancers with one female, which choregraphically has far more potential for memorable moments. This is evident from the very beginning, when Marianela Nunez folds herself into an extreme penchée en pointe – essentially, a straight vertical line – and is slowly turned by Edward Watson and Valeri Hristov. It isn’t all dramatic contortion however – simple port de bras sequences or changing of feet correspond to the gentle piano chords of Satie’s music. Monotones’ 22 minute running time flies by, in spite of its measured pace. It may not be Ashton’s glitteriest or most charming work, but it is a timeless testament to his gifts and a crucial part of his legacy.

Hay and Takada in rehearsal. Courtesy of ROH
Rehearsal. Courtesy of ROH

If you were going to award a ‘most charming’ accolade to any of Ashton’s works, The Two Pigeons would be a very strong contender. At its centre are the Young Man (James Hay) and Young Girl (Akane Takada), who have one of the most touching, relatable romantic relationships in ballet. Around this warm, glowing heart is a colourful cast of gypsies and friends – and let’s not forget the actual pigeons. More about them later. The first act opens in the Young Man’s bohemian attic studio, where he is painting the Young Girl’s portrait. She is fidgety and unable to hold the desired pose, which frustrates him – a gaggle of girlfriends then arrive, distracting her further. It’s clear just from this introduction that we are not dealing with the average ballet heroine – Young Girl is kooky, playful, clumsy and clingy. Hardly a sparkling Sugar Plum Fairy or serene Odette.
When a pair of white pigeons fly past the window, she is inspired by their similarity to herself and her lover. The duet that follows is the highlight of the ballet, beginning with the Young Girl peeping over the Young Man’s shoulders and then moving her head down his arms. In spite of his initial reluctance they are soon dancing together, imitating birds by flexing their feet and waggling their arms behind them like wings. It may look comical, but the coordination, musicality and stamina required is extremely demanding. The entrance of the gypsies interrupts this happy romance, as the beguiling Gypsy Girl (Mayara Magri) attracts the Young Man’s attention. Her choreography is a cross between ballet and belly dancing – she tempts the Young Man with flashy turns, wiggling hips and shoulder shimmies. There is an amusing dance off, where the angry Young Girl attempts to imitate the Gypsy’s movements, but even her desperate efforts to physically detain her lover fail and he runs off after his new friends.
Act II is a vibrant, dramatic riot of loose hair and colourful flowing skirts. There are plenty of ensemble numbers – my favourite is a punchy fandango – and as the attraction between the Gypsy Girl and the Young Man intensifies, her lover jealously intervenes. She manipulates the two men in a clever pas de trois, and soon they are arm wrestling. The Young Man loses and is sent packing. It’s not exactly the most rewarding outcome – it takes rejection by the Gypsy Girl to make the Young Man go back to his true love – but I like to think he would have eventually got there on his own. The final scene is undeniably sweet – Hay looks truly repentant when he returns to the Young Girl, and they reconcile with a slow, tender duet that is a marked contrast to the first. Clearly, the two live pigeons weren’t happy with Hay and Takada having all the attention and decided to misbehave. One – which sits on the Young Man’s shoulder when he enters – decided that it would rather stay with Hay than move onto a new perch, and it took several minutes to be persuaded. The second flew onstage and headed straight for the floor instead of alighting next to its counterpart. Such divas!

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