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La Fille mal Gardee
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.
© John Ross
© John Ross
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.