1:14pm Wednesday 7th March 2012
By David Bellan
Birmingham Royal Ballet opened its new season with two major works by Sir Frederick Ashton, arguably Britain’s greatest choreographer. They showed the company to be in great form, and still able to deliver Ashton’s very individual style.
Daphnis and Chloe is a period piece from 1951 which still looks fresh, and still benefits from the original, strikingly contemporary designs of John Craxton. Ravel wrote the music for the original Ballets Russes version of 1912, and Ashton’s re-creation fits it beautifully. Daphnis loves Chloe, but he has a rival. She’s captured by pirates, but is saved from a fate worse than death and returned home by the god Pan. Ashton’s clean lines for the Greek-style dances of the villagers, his big macho solos for the men, and his lyrical choreography for Chloe still look good today. Elisha Willis is fine in the lead, and Ian Mackay, Matthew Lawrence and Mathias Dingman enjoy showing off some virtuoso steps as the goat-herd lover, his rival, and the pirate chief.
From ancient Greece we moved to 19th-century Paris. The Two Pigeons, made ten years later, takes us to the studio of artist Robert Parker, who is trying to paint a portrait of his very young girlfriend, Nao Sakuma. She won’t sit still, and is driving him mad. Gypsies arrive and the boy eyes up their leader’s sexy woman (a transformed Elisha Willis), and follows her to the gypsies’ camp. There he’s beaten up, and returns to his studio, now understanding that his true love is waiting at home.
It’s hard to get Ashton’s delicate comedy and touching young love just right, but Sakuma’s performance is a triumph. She avoids the overacting that can mar this role, so that she is irritating, but charmingly so, and too young to grasp that she really is annoying her lover. Then she is drawn into a dance duel with the gypsy woman. She is infinitely touching in her efforts to win him over, and, when he leaves her alone in the studio, we feel her heart breaking.
The second act opens in a colourful swirl of gypsy girls, in a sequence of dances that would win over even the staunchest of ballet sceptics. Willis comes into her own here in a couple of flashy, alluring solos, before The Boy (no names in this work) meets his fate, roped up in a circle of menacing gypsies. The final scene of reconciliation in the studio is one of the most tender moments you will ever see on the stage. This is a masterpiece.
Robert Parker does well as the boy, but the plaudits go to the beautiful dancing and moving acting of Nao Sakuma. This terrific double bill is at the London Coliseum on March 13 and 14.
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