Dance: Tales of pointe-toed trotters

It's rare for an audience to arrive having done their homework, but at the Royal Ballet's first night at the Festival Hall last Tuesday there were some serious scholars about. One small person near me was declaring her learned position during the Tales of Beatrix Potter overture. The parents had in vain tried to wrest from her a miniature hardback she'd brought along. It wasn't just a little something to see her through Les Patineurs in the first half. It was background reading for the main event. "I want to make sure they get it right!" she hissed.

The first thing to know about Frederick Ashton's ballet, based on Potter's little books, is that he expressly didn't want it put on stage. "People will think I'm gaga," he is supposed to have said (this coming from one who later staged a work for peas and a cauliflower, but never mind). He had made a series of animal dances for the successful 1971 film, Tales of Beatrix Potter, and really didn't think they had any life beyond it. The Royal Ballet thought better, and in 1992, four years after Ashton's death, director Anthony Dowell rearranged his dances as a self-contained suite which has made a nice little Christmas earner for the company ever since.

The trouble is, Ashton was right. Although his choreography does supply the best bits of the film - in which it appears as visual asides to a spoken narrative - as a stage work it has to speak for itself. And it simply hasn't enough to say. For these are not the tales so much as the characters of Beatrix Potter, displayed in drastically telescoped versions of what happens in the books. (Peter Rabbit, absurdly, has only a walk- on part.) There is little chance for children to lose themselves in a story. And once we've finished ooh-ing and aah-ing at the thrilling verisimilitude of the animal costumes and masks, even Ashton's most inspired choreography struggles to provide the sort of substance that keeps young and old in thrall.

Most of the tales in this selection are pretty thin on incident anyway. What does Mrs Tiggywinkle do except sort through a pile of laundry? The fact that this fairly inert bundle of aprons and prickles holds the spotlight for two solo dance numbers, accompanied by the quaint plinkety-plonk of a mandolin, shows just how adept Ashton is at making much of little. And that - apart from pure nursery nostalgia, if it gets you that way - is the chief reason an adult might find to buy a ticket for this show.

Just as Potter does in her books, Ashton has struck a witty balance between human and animal behaviour that makes us appreciate both: the anatomical, magret-bearing qualities of Jemima Puddleduck, as well as the famous silliness, which is a human foible transferred. Her search for that convenient, dry nesting place is a brilliant piece of comic ballet mime, as she preens and fusses and waggles her tail-feathers before setting down her sagging rear with a satisfied whump. In the "Tale of Pigling Bland", the decision to put all the male pigs on pointe at a stroke turns feet into trotters. And the tender pas de deux between Pigling and Pigwig is truly touching, as Pigwig hoists her leg into classic arabesque and tilts her head towards the audience in the grand manner, before succumbing to a quivering, snouty kiss.

There is a supreme Englishness about Ashton's Tales - in its innocence, its restraint, its yearning for an idealised past - that puts it firmly in line with greater works in his output; works such as Les Patineurs, made more than three decades earlier, which the Royal Ballet once again includes to make a double bill. It's a good match, because although Patineurs doesn't make concessions to a junior audience, it again displays Ashton's delight in adapting non-dance movement to classical steps: in this case, imitating the movements of skaters on ice.

The illusion is so perfect, you'd think the Festival Hall had laid on a special slippery floor. Bodies are braced forward, feet slide, heads nod comically from side to side with each swishing step. Every few minutes, there's fresh pleasure to be had. Two girls do a cheery peg-doll walk on the tips of their toes. A fur-clad couple dance a dreamy love duet (too bad something went wrong here - she was giving him looks fit to freeze his face). A perky bell-boy does a Fred Astaire and nearly twizzles a hole in the ice. In short, they don't make 'em like this any more. And if you manage to spot that the entire work is made up of just five basic ballet steps, repeated, inverted, reversed, then good for you.

Royal Festival Hall, SE1 (0171 960 4242) to 3 Jan.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

    £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

    Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

    £23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...