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‘Fille at Fifty’
The Royal Ballet's much loved La Fille mal Gardée is 50 years old this month and we celebrate in style with lots of links and recollections
By Jane Simpson
Fifty years ago today - Thursday 28th January 1960 - at Covent Garden, the Royal Ballet gave the first performance of Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal Gardée. To celebrate the anniversary we've updated and added to our Fille pages and collected some memories of that amazing first night.
The lucky people who were at the first night seem to remember it very clearly, half a century later.
We asked John Percival for his memories:
"My first taste of La fille mal gardee came soon after World War II when gifted young Renee Jeanmaire and Vladimir Skouratoff, touring as part of a French group, gave extracts from a version after Petipa danced to Hertel’s 1864 score. Brilliant dancing, bold acting and already, the now familiar pink ribbons. Fascinating, but how dated it looked.
So when Frederick Ashton announced that he would mount a version for the Royal Ballet in 1960, we feared something old-fashioned, and after the dress rehearsal Clive Barnes expressed disappointment at how dull he found it.
What a difference that night when a cast led by Nadia Nerina, David Blair and Alexander Grant – not forgetting Stanley Holden as the heroine’s mother – inspired by a live audience, let rip in interpretations full of life and humour.
Nerina’s speed and lightness, and the charm of her playing with her imaginary children (as taught by the prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina); the strength and power of Blair’s pirouettes and tours en l’air in Russian-inspired solos – wow!
Bowled over (you can see why in the film of that incomparable cast) I asked Ashton “do you think anyone else could dance those roles?” and he replied that he believed one or two of the younger dancers might succeed in them.
What a marvellous plot after Dauberval’s 1789 original; what attractive music arranged by John Lanchberry from Herold’s 1828 score; but above all what incomparable dancing and acting, a challenge ever since to performers in many companies, but above all to the dancers Ashton worked with and was inspired by. At once we saw that he had created a hit, quite different from any of his other ballets, but superb on its own terms."
© John Ross
"The first night of La Fille Mal Gardee. Word going around before the performance was that this was something of a museum piece and what was Ashton doing in reviving it.
Of course when the curtain went up and the cockerel and the hens began to strut their stuff it started to dawn on people that perhaps this view was mistaken, and as the ballet progressed everyone was won over by the charm and virtuosity of the choreography and the dancers. The "harvest" pdd ended in a storm of applause,not only, I think, because of its intrinsic merits but also because it represented some sort of technical breakthrough for British dancers.Of course everyone knew that Nerina and Blair were strong technically, but on that night the speed and smoothness of Blair's pirouettes and Nerina's remarkable elevation and ballon together with the one-handed lift at the end of the pdd upset the received perception that it was only Russians who could do that sort of thing.
After all the excitement of Fille, Facade which followed it came as something of an anticlimax. It would have been better to have had it as a "curtainraiser". And apropos of curtainraisers it would be nice to see them restored before 2 act ballets. BRB seem to be leading the way on this. Perhaps it may catch on with the RB.
By the way, I still have the Fille first night programme."
As for me, I trailed in 43 hours later, for the second performance, and noted that it was "full of light and very funny" and that it was was received with rapture and about 15 curtain calls, half with the house lights up.
If anyone else remembers these very early days, please write in!