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BWW Review: ASPHODEL MEADOWS/THE TWO PIGEONS, Royal Opera HouseWith the last remains of glittery Nutcracker magic now behind us for another year, just two days after the end of the run of the festive classic, the Royal Ballet return with a fun, bright and uplifting mixed bill to ease us through January.

Asphodel Meadows is a brief and well-crafted little gem from Liam Scarlett, having premiered in 2010. At the time, Scarlett was just 24 years old and this was his first commission for the Royal Opera House main stage; now, it sits confidently amongst the Royal's repertoire.

It features three central pas de deux to Francis Poulenc's turbulent double piano concerto, that sways from charming vibrancy to a moody storminess as it passes through movements. Laura Morera and Marianela Nunez featured in the casting from nine years ago and reprise those roles here, partnered by Ryoichi Hirano and William Bracewell, while the final movement is led capably by rising stars Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Luca Acri.

The title refers to the mythological Greek underworld where souls reside after death, but Scarlett's ballet does not have a narrative and works both as a technical masterclass where one can allow the dancing to wash over you or as something a little more meaty to unpick.

Including ensemble, the piece feautures 20 dancers, who Scarlett arranges cleanly, the staging never busy or confused. Moments of demanding choreography in the pas de deux are broken by the dramatic stillness in the couple's gazes at each other. Here, Laura Morera is particularly in tune with Scarlett's intentions, delivering the subtle emotions within the piece engagingly.

The impactful third movement is led with attack by Hinkis and Acri, with choreography that demands more power and athleticism featuring a rapid fire of jumps and turns as they respond to the more menacing shift in the score in a rare piece that ends too soon.

John MacFarlane's designs are a little dingy at times and don't allow for full appreciation of the lines and shapes from the dancers, but the simple elegance of the costuming - the dark coloured dresses with billowing skirts for the leads - are understated and stylish.

Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons was revived due to public interest in 2015 after a 30-year absence. It's a somewhat old-fashioned, sentimental tale, full of sweetness with the added bite of Act II's colourful scene at the gypsy camp.

Vadim Muntagirov and Lauren Cuthbertson reprise their roles as the Young Man and Young Girl from the previous run, demonstrating a delightful chemistry together, and it's a pleasing change not to see Muntagirov as a bereft prince or similar. Indeed, the abandon of the pair in the almost slapstick, playful and stroppy exchanges they have here is wonderful to see.

Cuthbertson convincingly pouts and stomps with a deliberate lack of elegance, and Muntagirov's visibly frustration with her immature behaviour, as he attempts to paint her portrait, mounts. The Young Girl's friends arrive to further infuriate him. The signature Ashtonian choreography with the flapping elbows, jutting necks and flexed feet are executed pleasingly by all, but Cuthbertson's is the most amusing with her manic lack of control.

Of course, the arrival of Laura Morera's alluring gypsy disrupts the the innocent romance of the initial setting - Morera's black-and-gold dress contrasting with the purity of Cuthbertson's white. She enjoys the disarray she causes and is outrageously flirtatious, almost laughing her way through her first solo ending with the generous split in her skirt exposing her leg to a captivated Young Man.

For all Act I's humour, Act II has little to add. Set within the gypsy camp, Morera further exudes her allure over Muntagirov's Young Man and there is much celebratory revelling by the ensemble gypsy folk, but it feels like a deliberate attempt to pad out the action into a full length ballet that could be a more appealing 50-minute, one-act deal.

The sugary romance of the reconciliation between the two lovers at the Young Man's studio is worth the wait, however. Cuthbertson is far more delicate here, fragile from the Young Man's betrayal. Who can't forgive a man with a live (well-behaved on this occasion) pigeon on his shoulder though? The two are reunited and a second pigeon joins them, signally that all is well is this pretty Parisian tale.

Asphodel Meadows/The Two Pigeons runs until February 13 at the Royal Opera House.

Image Credit: Bill Cooper

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