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La Fille mal Gardee

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Ashton roles: Lise

When Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal Gardée was new, in 1960, Marie Rambert described it as 'the first great English classic'. You might argue that it was actually the fourth or fifth G.E.C., but certainly no other ballet in our history has so instantly established itself, or been greeted with such near-unanimous joy by critics and audience alike.

In its original form, with choreography by Dauberval and music by an anonymous hand, Fille had its première in Bordeaux in 1789 - two weeks before the fall of the Bastille. (We saw a reconstruction of this version done by the Ballet du Rhin a few years ago - I remember going out of a sense of duty, expecting some dusty museum piece, and finding it completely charming.) It has been revived in a dozen different forms since then, most importantly in Paris in 1828, with a new score by Herold (well, newish - bits of Herold, bits of the original, quite a lot of Rossini), and in St Petersburg in 1885, with music by Hertel and choreography by Petipa and (mostly) Ivanov. It was this last version which Tamara Karsavina remembered, and its touching mime scene which is preserved in Ashton's ballet. Pavlova had a version in her repertory, but by 1960 Fille was seen as a piece of faded history, and Ashton's decision to recreate it was greeted with surprise and some scepticism.

Fille was one of the first ballets about 'real' people, rather than gods or kings and queens. Its hero and heroine are an ordinary young couple, and its plot is a very simple variation on 'boy meets girl/problems arise and are overcome/boy gets girl'. A love story, in fact. Ashton's version is saved from over-sweetness by the character of Alain, the heroine's childish, rather reluctant, but extremely rich suitor, whose rejection can seem almost tragic in the right hands. I have known misguided people who claim to dislike Fille because the story is so simple - and besides, can a ballet featuring a dear little pony and lots of pink ribbons really be taken seriously? They are missing the point: a comedy can be as much of a masterpiece as a tragedy, and Ashton's is perfectly structured and its choreography is both brilliant and perfectly appropriate. Apart from the famous set pieces such as the clog dance and the 'picnic' pas de deux, Fille is full of typical Ashtonian touches - the ending of the second act, for instance, and the quite unexpected pas deux in the same scene, quiet and touching, where anyone else would have made it technically dazzling and triumphant.


Carlos Acosta as Colas and Marianela Nunez as Lise (from 2005, Royal Ballet)
© John Ross

It was in Fille that Ashton worked for the first time with principals famous for thestrength of their technique, and he made the most of it. In 1960 people thought that the only problem with the ballet was that no-one else would ever be able to dance it - over forty years of performances have happily proved them wrong. Lise (the heroine) in particular has proved to be one of those roles in which no-one is ever really bad. Nadia Nerina, its creator, was the technical whizz of the day, and at least for the first few years she also brought much charm and humour to the role - but some of her successors have danced it as well or better, and many have made the character just as lively and likeable. Ann Jenner, Doreen Wells, Lesley Collier, Sandra Madgwick and lots of others in their turn made the role their own: in fact the only ones who've seemed less than happy with the part were (oddly) Antoinette Sibley and more recently Viviana Durante, who at her debut at least looked rather uncomfortable. In the 1990s Sarah Wildor, Belinda Hatley and Nao Sakuma gave memorable performances with the London or Birmingham companies, and more recently Marianela Nunez has equalled any of the interpreters of the past. David Blair's successors as Colas have not been of quite such a uniformly high standard, but they have included some great interpretations - guest artists Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Bujones, Schaufuss and Flindt have all enjoyed themselves, though my own favourites would be from the companies' own casts: Michael Coleman, Bruce Sansom, and, above all, David Wall. Amongst the more recent casts, Carlos Acosta is probably the current favourite, with Robert Parker and Chi Cao from the Birmingham company also giving very pleasing interpretations. Even so, no-one ever picks up the wine bottles in the front-of-curtain scene with Blair's timing and panache.


Colas with friends at the celebrations, Carlos Acosta (from 2005, Royal Ballet)
© John Ross

The 'character' roles of Alain and Lise's mother, Widow Simone, have had a more chequered career. Alain, in particular, was so wonderfully done by Alexander Grant in the first cast that everyone since has risked looking like a pale imitation. The best have found their own way of bringing something new to the part, but Jonathan Howells was the first to have really challenged Grant's supremacy - although coached by Grant himself, he found a completely individual way to the heart of the role. Some excellent Simones have followed Stanley Holden into the clog dance - Ronald Emblen and Brian Shaw in early days, then David Bintley, our finest character dancer since Grant; in the most recent revivals, though, this has proved to be the most difficult of the leading roles to cast.

Fille is one of those ballets that sends you home happy, no matter how many times you've seen it, and it is sad that it has become something of a rarity in recent years. It used to be a staple of the RB touring company - who often looked more at home in it than their London colleagues - and there never used to be much of a gap between revivals at Covent Garden. Let's hope that the success of recent revivals has reestablished its popularity, and that it will long continue to bring as much delight to new audiences as it does to those who've seen it 50 times already, and can't wait for the next one.

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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