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Ismene Brown on Dante, Two Pigeons

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Ismene Brown nearly always has interesting things to say in reviews, and this one is no exception. Ari found this for Links, but I'm putting it here as well, because of her description of Dante Sonata (among other things). This is a work unfamiliar to most of us.

Two pigeons that hardly take flight

Dante Sonata's renewed popularity is unsurprising in our emotionally delicate age. Our feelings are buffeted by its stormy Liszt music and the graphic clarity of smoke curling across a black sky, by the transparent moral manipulation of bare-footed girls in white nighties and loose hair and fierce men with black snakes around their bodies.

The dancers might find it OTT, but if a watcher plunges the imagination back to the agonies of 1940, the work's naivety suddenly looks direct, and its ending – with the young men of both sides sacrificed – profoundly brave and visionary.

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There was a mass exodus of ballet fans to Birmingham for the Ashton double bill, partly because we've been starved of Ashton at Covent Garden in recent years and partly to catch sight of the very rare Dante Sonata.

I was seeing Dante Sonata for the first time as I missed it when it was first revived by BRB a couple of years back and so I did a spot of research before I saw it. It seems the ballet made a big impression on both critics and audiences at the time. The critics were impressed that Ashton was tackling a work on a more serious theme after the light-hearted ballets he created in the '30's and because it depicts the struggle between good and evil, audiences in those war years strongly identified with what was happening on stage. It notched up hundreds of performances and then inexplicably disappeared.

The big shock is that it's danced barefoot and that the girls all have their hair loose (usually a pet hate of mine at the ballet). The Children of Darkness are dramatic and assertive, with the men very scantily clad, rather like the Martha Graham males. The Children of light look more balletic, with the girls in Grecian style white costumes and the men in more traditional ballet wear. The dancing is freer and more expressionistic than I would imagine from Ashton, emotions are raw and grief and despair are graphically portrayed. Fonteyn was the original leading Child of light and how I would have loved to have seen her! Helpmann led the children of darkness and looks from a contemporary picture I’ve found, more melodramatic and heavily made up than dancers in the role today.

The ballet was well danced and well applauded by the audience and I find it hard to reconcile Ms Brown’s views with the performances I saw.

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"Helpmann led the children of darkness and looks from a contemporary picture I’ve found, more melodramatic and heavily made up than dancers in the role today. "

From what I've heard Helpmann was always more melodramatic and heavily made up than today's dancers Mashinka!

More seriously, I'm very curious as to what US audiences will make of Dante Sonata. It is very different to any other Ashton work I can think of - though in its freedom and expressiveness a piece he made called Lament of the Waves (now lost I guess) had some similarities. I saw two performances of Dante with two casts - both good. And at both performances the dancers performed with total sincerity and belief - although it must be very different from anything else they perform, even leaving aside the bare feet and loose hair of the women. There are some wonderful images. A heap of seemingly naked writhing bodies; a short, breast-beating variation for one of the Children of Light women; the crucifixion of the leading male Child of Light and a thoroughly ambiguous ending.

The audience (good houses at both Saturday performances) was hugely appreciative.

I thought Silvia Jimenez was terrific as a Child of Darkness and I liked Andy Reitschel in the Helpmann role (much less makeup!). Both women who did the breast-beating variation were good, the leading Children of Light couple were a bit more problematic - they are roles that depend greatly on presence and personality, but I don't think any company anywhere in the world currently has a young Fonteyn and a young Soames.

Two casts in Two Pigeons: I liked Chi Cao and Ambra Vallo best in the first act and Robert Parker and Nao Sakuma in the second. Where this pair fell down for me in Act I was that they tried too hard to act and force the comedy. I rember Ashton once saying to me (in fact about his Juliet) "They all want to act, but it's all there in the choreography". I think that's true for Pigeons as well. By simply performing the choreography as written Cao and Vallo were far more effective.

My husband, who has seen the ballet more often than I, was however very impressed with Sakuma who he thought had caught Seymour's way of moving.

Parker shone more in Act II - even though he didn't managed the triple tours en l'air that Paul Clarke used to do or David Wall's double doubles. And both casts in the final pas de deux had me wiping my eyes - although there's still more to get out of it than they've found yet.

Of the two gypsy girls; Molly Smolen gave an accurate account of the choreography, but I thought she was completely without allure. Asta Bazevicute - a tall dancer had some difficulties, but was a chilly, self-absorbed fascinator - a real femme fatale.

I don't understand Ismene Brown's criticisms of the company. True there is none of the frantic acting you see from the Covent Garden corps in their MacMillan repertory - all those whores and beggars. But it would be totally wrong in Ashton anyway. I did see a company who seemed to believe completely in what they were doing and those gypsies certainly gavseemed e the impression that they were thoroughly enjoying what they were given to do.

I wasn't able to see Fille thanks to engineering works on the railways. My husband has gone to Manchester this weekend to catch up on two casts (including the Parker Sakuma pairing that Brown criticises so heavily) and I'll be interested to see if his impressions bear any relation to her notice.

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