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

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    Day In a Page

    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower