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Ashton roles: Lise

Brenda Last, former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, talks about her favourite role

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Brenda Last danced Lise in Ashton's La Fille mal Gardee 101 times, according to the Royal Ballet's big history book - and that's just with the touring company. That puts her way ahead of any other interpreter, including the role's creator Nadia Nerina, and it's hard to imagine that anyone else will ever come near a total like that. We talked at the Royal Opera House, and I wish I could add some video clips - even just sitting on a sofa, her demonstrations brought Lise so vividly to life. I asked first about her overall feelings about the ballet.

When I first danced Fille, I felt very much at home in the role - I found it extremely fulfilling. The construction has a feel of Coppélia about it, which I knew so well, and although it's set in France it has an Englishness about it (Sir Fred had a house in Suffolk). It has a great deal of charm and so did Sir Fred.

I found it possibly the most enjoyable role I've ever danced - it was so rewarding. It used many of my strengths - jumping, turning, acting, and it reminded me slightly of my own relationship with my mother, who was quite strict but very loveable. I was fortunate to have Ronald Emblen as my Widow Simone, many many times, though I also did it with Stanley Holden, who created the role. Ronald Emblen was absolutely marvellous as one's mother, and I had a long stage relationship with him this role. He was such a generous artist and a dear friend.

The first Colas I ever danced with was Gary Sherwood - then with Graham Usher, Michael Coleman, Ian Hamilton, David Wall, Kerrison Cooke, Nicholas Johnson and Paul Clarke. I also had the chance to dance with David Blair, the original Colas, in a TV programme 'Ballet for All'. When we were out on tour you changed partners quite often, because of injuries and so on, and sometimes it could be quite funny - for instance Ian Hamilton was a very tall dancer and together we looked like Tom and Jerry - but we were the only two left standing one Saturday night so we danced together. When you're in a rehearsal room, you know, you try to make a relationship with your partner, as an artist. Some aren't as generous as others, they want to do it their way or they want to play it for laughs - it all depends on what sort of artist you're working with. But of course in a company you have to work with everybody. I even found myself dancing with a charming Danish dancer, Jorn Madsen, who had been flown over from Copenhagen when everybody was off. I've danced in place of Nadia, and of Antoinette Sibley, several times. When I came to dance Fille here at the Opera House, the stage crew from the Touring Company sent me flowers - I found that a huge compliment. I was really touched by it.

Did you ever dance in the corps, or as one of Lise's friends?

When I was first in the company I was a chicken - I went from being a chicken to Lise.

Who taught you the role originally?

Well, in the touring company it was done by Doreen Wells and Shirley Grahame, and various others as well as Nadia, so you just went to the rehearsals and you learned it like that. I was taught a lot by Henry Legerton of course - lots of the characterisation of it. He was our wonderful ballet master, and he always played Thomas. I learned a lot from him. Then you were in front of Ashton and he would tell you the things he did like or what he didn't like.

Can you remember anything specific about working with Ashton?

You always rehearsed fully out when you were with Ashton. The role needs a lot of strength - it's a demi-caractere role and you have to have the stamina for it. Sir Fred was always asking you to move your body - that was hard: you're jumping and you're doing all kinds of things but you've got to move and twist and use epaulement - all of his ballets need epaulement - and in the solo it can be very tiring indeed. But it makes it look so different. He was wonderfully supportive in rehearsal so long as you showed precision and care about his choreography.

Brenda Last as Lise
Photograph copyright Maureen Flenley

In terms of technical difficulty, how would you rate Lise?

As I said, you have to have a lot of stamina - it's a jumping and turning role with a lot of fast footwork. I found it most enjoyable - it's just a wonderful work to dance - all the things I like doing. And it's a great acting role - I loved all the mime in the last act.

Could you talk through some of the difficult bits?

In the first act, there's the pas de deux where you have to do a cat's cradle. Now, how ever many times you may rehearse it, the ribbons seem to have a will of their own when you get onstage. They either become clammy, or they don't twist the way they should; so you have to get a kind of instinct about these wretched ribbons, because they're going to do something different, they're going to fox you.

Then in the second act, the bit where you turn in attitude holding all the ribbons - how does that work?

It's the pull, the tension from having eight ribbons like that. The tension pulls you round, but of course you have to have your own balance, and then you have to use your foot like a pivot, and hold the turn-out, as the girls run round.

It must be quite difficult for them?

Yes, they have to run in a proper circle. But of course you don't always have the same tension, and it's especially difficult on a raked stage - you really have to hold your balance. Colas just puts you there - he promenades you round in attitude, holding your waist, and you feel the tension in the ribbons and when it's comfortable for you, and then he goes, and they go and it's up to you.

Do you tell him when to let go?

No, you just have to feel it - it should be musical, you shouldn't need to say 'Now go'.

I don't think I've ever seen a Lise come off pointe in that bit...

I don't think you'd be chosen to do it if you were going to come off pointe!

And the big lift at the end of that pas de deux - it seems to take a lot of fussing about these days, was it always like that?

No - the boy just crouches, you sit on his hand, demi-plie and jump and up you go.

In the last act, when your mother's just put her hat on and gone out, and you're left furious, is there some latitude in what you do then?

No. It was set precisely by Ashton. It's very easy to start playing it for laughs. In Act 2 where you're daydreaming about getting married and being pregnant, if you exaggerate the mime for "pregnant" and make a face to the audience you might get a laugh. But it's much more subtle than that. You have to put yourself really into the role and believe in what you're doing and then the audience will be with you and you can hear a pin drop. Ashton's choreography will always do that - he knew how to grab the audience. I tried not to make Lise twee. I think she must be a true and an earthy girl, with common sense - not stupid, and not tiresome. She was just head over heels in love with Colas, and didn't want a marriage arranged for financial reasons.

When you've danced a role 100 times, does it become routine?

Never. Of course, with any performing art, you have to keep it alive and you've got to try to find little things.. and in Fille there are plenty of those. Ribbons, props etc, and your relationship with all the different Colas and Widows.

Was the company doing Fille when you were the ballet mistress?

Not at first, because it was the New Group [a brief period when the company only put on short ballets], but later we put Fille on again and I rehearsed it - and Two Pigeons as well. I used to rehearse a lot of the principals, as well as putting it altogether of course.

I think it's a wonderful work, a genius work. It's so brilliantly constructed, right from when the boys open the gates at the beginning and they come in all still waking up - it just sets the scene perfectly. You can't imagine anything else could follow the Fanny Elssler pas de deux because it's such a brilliant tour de force for both dancers, but it's a stroke of genius that Sir Fred brings in a pure vaudeville number for the clog dance, and then after that everyone comes on for the storm... The close collaboration between Lanchbery and Ashton produced a wonderful score.

It was always a crowd-puller, audiences always enjoyed it - though I have to tell you that when I was leaving the theatre one evening, after watching from out front, there were two elderly ladies and one turned to the other and said 'I thought it was about a horse' - 'Filly mal Gardee'. And though it's always said you shouldn't appear with animals, I think we won out in Fille, even with a lovely pony. You just come out elated, it's such a gem - and I just hope today's dancers all appreciate it, what they've got there.

Brenda Last had her early training with Biddy Pinchard, Vera Volkova and Andrew Hardie - a very distinguished lineage, which led to her winning the Adeline Genee Gold Medal in 1955. She then joined the Royal Ballet School but after only a year she was told that her height - she just tops five feet - meant that she'd never be taken into the company: so she left, and for a couple of years led a freelance existence in pantomime, film, television, cabaret - anything that was going, and the dole when there was nothing. In 1957 she was invited to join the newly-formed Western Theatre Ballet, and stayed there until 1962 when Ninette de Valois offered her a contract in the touring Royal Ballet. (She hadn't grown in the meantime but evidently that was no longer so important!) Within a couple of years she was promoted to Principal, and she later served as the company's ballet mistress. From 1977 to 1980 she was the Artistic Director of the Norwegian Ballet, From 1980 to 1994 she was, with Ronald Emblen, senior ballet tutor at the London Contemporary Dance School. She has also taught world-wide for the R.A.D., served on the Arts Council Dance Panel and the Olivier Awards. She is presently Director of Training for the British Ballet Organisation and teaches regularly at London Studio Centre.

The photograph of Frederick Ashton which appears at the top of each page is copyright Leslie E. Spatt - click here to see the full version.

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