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DANCE REVIEW

FREDERICK ASHTON'S LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 12 SEPTEMBER 2007— It might surprise some that this sunniest of ballets set in the soft-rolling English countryside, and first staged at Covent Garden in 1960 by Frederick Ashton, the most "English" 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 at the Opéra of Bordeaux in 1789, with choreography and libretto by Jean Dauberval. A highly popular work where robust country folk replaced the more conventional prince, princesses and sylphs, it was performed around Europe with great success, but did not reach the Paris Opéra until 1828 when it was restaged to a new musical arrangement by Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold. Over the years other productions came to the fore, but it wasn't until 1960 that Ashton was moved to create a ballet uniquely his own.

Encouraged in London by Tamara Karsavina who had danced the role of Lise, the heroine, in one of the many versions based on that of Petipa and Ivanov, Ashton unearthed Dauberval's libretto from the British Museum and copied it out by hand. And then, working from his country house in Suffolk in the heart of Southern England, and inspired no doubt by the pastoral scenes surrounding him, he wrote out his version of the simple story of Lise, whose widowed mother tries to marry her off to Alain, the only son of a wealthy landowner. The problem of course is that Lise is in love with Colas, as young and handsome as he is penniless, while the well-to-do, over-protected Alain is excessively shy, oafish and eccentric, to say the least.

Ashton's version entered into the Paris Opéra Ballet's repertoire in June, the first performance at the Palais Garnier being danced by Dorothée Gilbert, bubbling with mischief, partnered by a Nicolas le Riche struggling to keep up with her in what proved to be an ill-balanced partnership. Unfortunately, there had been several last-minute changes of cast due to injuries. Gilbert herself was totally adorable. She has the sure technique, quickness and personality necessary for the role, but shone most in the exchanges with her mother who showed her gift for pure comedy as well as strong dancing. She was at her best when Mr. Le Riche, too old for her, was not around. Although he had moments of excellence, he was lumbering where he should have been fast, heavy where he should have been light, and with his large, solid frame and greying hair, a legacy from his role with Robyn Orlin, passed ill for an adolescent country boy. He only came into his own in the exuberant Bolshoi lifts and bravura moments.


La fille mal gardée
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

The stars of the evening lay in the two supposedly "secondary roles", that of the mother and Alain. Michael Denard was the finest Widow Simone I have seen, and that includes performances at Covent Garden when this travesty role, over-played more often than not, has always been a source of irritation. Denard, subtle, intelligent, a consummate actor, and incidentally, one of the handsomest of male dancers of his time, was brilliant. Perhaps he is familiar with British music-hall traditions, or had certainly studied them, for he got the role absolutely right without a gram of vulgarity or coarseness. He was both domineering yet tender-hearted towards Lise, while his jaunty clog dance, based on Lancastrian clog-dancing, brought the house down.

His stunning performance was only rivalled by that of Simon Valastro as Alain, who gave a Buster Keaton-like interpretation of the rejected suitor. Valastro, now 26, is a superb dancer and interpreter and he positively shone in the role. He wasn't an idiot or stupid at all but rather an endearingly eccentric, exceedingly timid young man. Valastro's performance touched your heart; his disappointments were shared by all the audience who chuckled with relief at the end when he reappears to rescue his beloved red umbrella and waddles off joyfully, clutching it to his heart.


La fille mal gardée
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Both he and Denard merited the tremendous ovation they received at the end; it was a ballet where comedy triumphed over love.

A completely different angle was given to the ballet by a second cast where it became a true celebration of young love with an enchanting central couple. Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann, the latter barely 19 years old, made their debut in the work and were positively a dream-team. They radiated happiness throughout and the audience smiled along with them. Ould-Braham was delicately flirtatious when churning the butter, encouraging her lover to help her in a courtship which bubbled throughout with tenderness and fun. Both are full of charm when Lise, believing herself to be alone in the house starts dreaming of a life with Colas. She anticipates getting married, plans one, then two and then three children and mimes her life with them, checking to see whether they've done their schoolwork and rocking the baby to sleep when she is caught out by Colas who has been there in hiding all along. He gently soothes her embarrassment, giving her one, then two, and then three kisses along her arm.

But not only does Heymann look and act the part, but he can dance this strange mixture of Russian and French classicism dosed with a tablespoon of Ashtonian Englishness. With his high, clean spectacular leaps and neat, precise footwork, he is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting young dancers to emerge from the French company.

However, they were not well-served by the other characters. Laurent Novis badly over-acted in an unconvincing, unfunny interpretation of Widow Simone, while Alain was danced by a young member of the corps de ballet who gave a valiant, almost credible attempt, but who was just not quite ready for the role.

In contrast, praise can only be given to the corps de ballet, dancing with amazing assurance, for Ashton's choreography is deceptively difficult with the speed of his turns and rapid footwork, and, considering the relatively short period of rehearsal time, a miracle was accomplished. The ribbon-dances of Act 1 were most beautifully done, from the horse and cart of Lise and Colas, their cat's cradle, and the stunning figures during the harvest festivities with Lise balanced in attitude atop a wheel of ribbons.


La fille mal gardée
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Last but by no means least, conductor Barry Wordsworth, musical director of both Covent Garden and Birmingham Royal Ballet , also accomplished a miracle of his own with the Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris. Rarely has the music, a musical arrangement of Herold's score by John Lanchbery sounded so lovely, pastoral and flowing, and yet demanding to be followed. The music, brilliantly directed, had, I was told, been rehearsed and rehearsed, Wordsworth, having demanded extra time with them. An example to be followed.

Other casts included the exquisite Mathilde Froustey and a guest appearance by Bolshoi star, Svetlana Lunkina both partnered by Mathieu Ganio.

Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at Culturekiosque.com   



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