Trending

How The Royal Ballet Trains Live Pigeons to Join the Cast of Ashton's Masterpiece

The Royal Ballet's Alexander Campbell and Yasmine Naghdi in Ashton's The Two Pigeons. Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.

While most ballet casts are 100 percent human, it's not unheard of for live animals to appear onstage, providing everything from stage dressing to supporting roles. Michael Messerer's production of Don Quixote features a horse and a donkey; American Ballet Theatre's Giselle calls for two Russian wolfhounds; and Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee requires a white Shetland pony. Another Ashton masterpiece, The Two Pigeons, is well known for its animal actors. But though ballet is a highly disciplined, carefully choreographed art form, some performers are naturally more prone to flights of fancy—because they're birds.


The Royal Ballet with La Fille Mal Gardee's furriest cast member

Helen Maybanks, Courtesy ROH

On opening night of The Royal Ballet's run of The Two Pigeons earlier this year, one of the pigeons made a beeline for the orchestra pit. The female pigeon, whose name is Mole, was supposed to land on soloist Reece Clarke's hand after his adagio solo and stay there until he left the stage. Clarke, in the lead role of the Young Man, said he wasn't sure if his grip was too tight, if the bird became nervous, or if the ropes he wore around his hands and waist during the scene scared the bird off. "I just had a brief moment of panic, and then it was almost like a nice moment," says Clarke. "Like I was setting the pigeon free. And I just had to pretend like that was supposed to happen." Two trainers had to go to the orchestra pit while the orchestra was still playing to retrieve her. "They said the pigeon was sitting at the conductor's podium," says Clarke.

The eponymous pigeons in Sir Frederick Ashton's work represent the relationship between the Young Man and the Young Girl. The Young Man becomes bored of his lover, the Young Girl, and abandons her for a gypsy woman. He is, in turn, spurned by the gypsy woman, kicked out of her camp, and returns, contrite, to his girlfriend. Similarly, the pigeons first appear as a pair, become separated and are then reunited onstage at the end of the show.

The key to working with live animals is to spend time with them beforehand and build a rapport, explains Emma Hills of the UK-based company Amazing Animals, which trains and supplies animals for the media. Hills, who is in charge of birds and small mammals, has been the Royal Ballet's go-to pigeon trainer for about 13 years. The pigeons she currently uses have done the show for nearly 10 years.

Clarke spent two rehearsals getting to know his pigeon partners before the latest production opened. "When I was first introduced to the pigeons, I'm not going to lie, I was pretty nervous," he says. However, Clark explains that he felt much more confident after practicing with the pigeons, even though one went to the toilet on his shoulder and kept squirming from shoulder to shoulder. Hence Hill's other piece of advice: Stay calm if things don't go according to plan. Give the pigeons a chance to adjust and correct themselves.

According to scientific research, pigeons are pretty smart animals. Studies suggest that pigeons factor probability into their decision making process, can be trained to recognize certain words, and have self-cognitive abilities beyond that of three-year-old children.

Hills' feathered performers, white Fantail Pigeons, were chosen as chicks and raised by humans to perform certain natural and reinforced behaviors. When two pigeons fly in sync across the backdrop of the stage, Hills is tapping into their innate flocking tendencies, since there's a third bird just offstage that the two pigeons fly to, which Hills refers to as "the decoy." She keeps five pigeons on hand during performances, including two "hero pigeons" that do most of the heavy-lifting on any given night. Once the ballet starts, the pigeons are kept in a cordoned off area backstage with their own private light, to keep them from falling asleep in the dark.

The Royal Ballet's Alexander Campbell in The Two Pigeons

Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH


Mole, the hero pigeon tasked with landing on the Young Man's hand after being released from about two meters offstage, has been trained to associate outstretched hands with the possibility of "high-value food rewards." "Hemp is a bit like pigeon chocolate," says Hills. "As long as being held and caught by a stranger is not fearful, as long as they can gamble to get high-value food, they maintain the behavior." Hills likes to have whoever is on as the Young Man rehearse this part backstage during intermission with some fresh hemp.

Even more tricky is the final scene, where a pigeon stays put on the Young Man's shoulder while he descends a flight of stairs, before transferring it off his shoulder to a perch on an ornate wicker chair, where it must stay while the two leads dance a seven-minute pas de deux. To accomplish this scene, Hills deploys a second hero pigeon, usually a male named Bianca. Bianca has only flown recreationally in the aviary, but never in training. "He's been highly trained for sitting and waiting," says

After the pas de deux, Bianca serves as the decoy for Mole to fly to. Despite Mole's earlier misadventure into the orchestra pit, Clarke says that she did her last flying pass beautifully. "She made up for it," he adds.

Ballet Careers
Lenai Alexis Wilkerson. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Michelle Tabnick Public Relations.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Lenai Alexis Wilkerson graduated from University of Southern California with a BFA in dance (dance performance concentration) and a political science minor in 2019.

As Lenai Alexis Wilkerson looked at colleges, she wanted a school that would prepare her for two totally different professions: dancing and law. "I knew, pretty much when I was 16, that I wanted to go to law school," she says. "So I wanted the opportunity to have a dual college experience, where I could have a conservatory training style within a university and I could focus equally on my academics." When she auditioned for the inaugural class of University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she knew it was the right fit.

Keep reading... Show less
Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet Academy

When you're looking for a ballet program to take you to the next level, there are a lot of factors to consider. While it's tempting to look for the biggest name that will accept you, the savvy dancer knows that successful training has more to do with the attention and opportunities you'll get.

We put together a few of the most important things for dancers to look for in a summer or year-round training program, with the help of the experts at Colorado Ballet Academy:

Keep reading... Show less
News
Nicolas Pelletier in Carmina Burana. Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Last week, Colorado Ballet interrupted Nutcracker rehearsals for an exciting announcement: Four dancers were being promoted. Though all made the jump from the company's corps de ballet, Nicolas Pelletier ascended directly to the rank of soloist, while Sean Omandam, Emily Speed and Melissa Zoebisch were promoted to demi-soloist. This news comes hot on the heels of last August's promotion of Francisco Estevez to principal.

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

Keep reading... Show less