A Sunny And Pastoral La Fille Revival Showcases Ashton’s Genius

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Frederick Ashton’s :La Fille mal gardée: Dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia,  Philip Ellis (conductor), Sadler’s Wells, London, 20.10.11. (JPr)

La Fille Mal Gardée - Photo Roy Smiljanic

It might be a surprise to some that this most heart-warming of ballets so redolent of the English countryside from times past and first staged at Covent Garden over 50 years ago by Frederick Ashton, the doyen of British choreographers, is actually French in origin as its title implies. Set to a series of popular French songs, La Fille mal gardée was created in 1789 at the Opéra of Bordeaux, with choreography and libretto by Jean Dauberval. The everyday story of country folk replaced the more conventional prince, princesses and sylphs. Having been performed with great success around Europe it reached the Paris Opéra in 1828 and was restaged with a new musical arrangement by Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold. It was produced here and there in the intervening period but only came to the fore at Covent Garden in 1960 when Ashton create a ballet with his typically ‘English’ signature.

Ashton’s version gives us the simply told tale of Lise, whose widowed mother tries to marry her off to Alain, the only son of Thomas, a wealthy landowner. Alain is painfully shy, rather slow-witted and somewhat eccentric but Lise’s true love is for the young and handsome, though penniless, Colas. As is to be expected, it all ends happily when they are given their parents’ blessing to marry and Ashton’s celebration of young love reaches its conclusion. Ashton’s treatment was influenced by many things including Tamara Karsavina who had danced the role in Russiaand the countryside around his Suffolkhome. There is much to enjoy here for balletomanes of all ages and for the very youngest there is always the ‘Ahh’ factor of a larger-than-life strutting cockerel with his four hens (apparently influenced by Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen) and a small white pony pulling a cart.

In 1962 La Fille mal gardée entered the repertory of the Royal Ballet Touring Company that has over the years evolved into the Birmingham Royal Ballet. These performances are dedicated to Alexander Grant who died recently; he was Ashton’s friend and collaborator and was bequeathed the ballet on ‘Sir Fred’s’ death in 1988.

Ashton’s choreography is deceptively difficult, mixing rapid footwork and quick spins with Bournonville softness and natural grace. There are also some Bolshoi-style grand gestures such as Colas lifting Lise high above his head at the end of their Act II pas de deux on the palm of his hand. The BRB’s corps de ballet deserve the highest praise and danced very assuredly. The ribbon-dances of Act I were very most beautifully done, including Lise and Colas’s ‘horse and cart’, their cat’s cradle, as too was the wheel of ribbons during the Act II harvest festivities.

This ballet has been a firm favourite of mine since I first saw it at Covent Gardenabout thirty years ago and I returned to it at Sadler’s Wells with the inner glow of someone visiting an old friend they have not seen for some time. As enjoyable as it was I ended up thinking more about those I had seen before; for instance, Lesley Collier as Lisa, Peter Schaufuss as Colas and Wayne Sleep as Alain than I sometimes did about those I was seeing. That will always be a problem with a ballet such as this when you are recreating – but not renewing – the past.

On the whole the principals did extremely well. I felt because Iain Mackay’s Colas towered over his Lise it brought a few challenges to their partnership and led to a very uncomfortable looking ‘bum lift’ (as that famous moment in Act II is known). Mackay is athletic, upright and long-limbed and flashes a winning smile, though his dancing was occasionally lacking in fluidity for me. Sakuma danced throughout with eloquence and grace and she was suitably flirtatious during her butter churning, encouraging her lover to help her in a courtship full of tenderness and fun. Sakuma was especially charming when, believing herself to be alone in the house, she starts dreaming of her future life with Colas. Lise envisages getting married, having one, two and then three children and mimes her life with them. She is caught out by Colas who has been hiding amongst some bales of corn and he gently calms her and soothes away her embarrassment, but not before proclaiming he wants five children! This and their finely danced final pas de deux were the best moments for this partnership.

Michael O’Hare was Widow Simone and some of the comedy seemed broader than I remember it from previous performances. He was never particularly vulgar or coarse but from all the greasepaint and baggy clothes emerged a rather ordinary pantomime dame and for me he lacked a little subtlety. Nevertheless his character’s famous clog dance was typically jaunty and brought the house down, as it must. Robert Gravenor gave an equally broad interpretation of the rejected suitor, Alain. As good as he was, he overdid the idiocy and stupidity a little too much at the expense of making this timid young man endearing enough to illicit our sympathy. His performance was only intermittently touching when his disappointments should in fact be shared by all the audience, especially at moments such as when he is joyfully reunited at the end with his beloved red umbrella. We should feel an emotional connection with him as he waddles off clutching it to his heart, but this never quite happened here.

Last by no means least, I must lavish praise on Philip Ellis and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia for a fine account of Herold’s score as arranged by John Lanchbery. Rarely have I heard a ballet score played with such refinement, it all unfolded seamlessly and sounded perfectly sunny and pastoral.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s next visit to the capital is at Christmas with seasonal performances of Sir Peter Wright’s production of The Nutcracker at The O2 – it is a treat that should not be missed.

Jim Pritchard

Please note that this production was reviewed in Birmingham on 2.3.2011 by Geoff Read