“There exists in my imagination a life in the country of eternally late spring, a leafy pastoral of perpetual sunshine and the humming of bees – the suspended stillness of a Constable landscape of my beloved Suffolk, luminous and calm”.
This was the image Frederick Ashton hoped to replicate in his revival of ballet, ‘La Fille Mal Gardée’. First premiered in 1789 at the Grand Theatre de Bordeaux in France, despite the French title and the characters’ French names, Ashton’s revival, which premiered in 1960, is quintessentially English, the work becoming an important staple in the repertories of modern ballet companies today.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production certainly achieves this vision, doing justice to the lasting legacy of this legendary choreographer. Their production strikes a harmonious balance between classic ballet and comedy, including everything – from satin ribbons, to clogs, even a pony – along the way! Ferdinand Hérold’s score is permed to perfection by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
Lise and penniless farmhand Colas are very much in love. Her mother, Widow Simone, however, has other, more ambitious plans, and hopes to marry her daughter off to the dimwitted son of a rich vineyard owner. A hilarious battle of wills between mother and daughter ensues. Who will be victorious? And who will Lise marry?
‘La Fille Mal Gardée’ provides a charming depiction of rural life in an idyllic English countryside, and the piece sparkles with English elegance, refinement, and sophistication.
The company execute Ashton’s technical, often intricate choreography with heightened grace and precision, their expressive characterisation masterful, their personalities shining through. Those scenes where many dancers – Lise’s friends, villagers, harvesters and grooms – flood the stage really is special, so colourful, so vibrant, so full of life, it really is heartwarming.
The ballet features a dance around the maypole. This scene is truly breathtaking, so cleverly done. Dancers weave in and out of each other, ribbon in hand, until the ribbons themselves create a colourful weave around the maypole.
On the surface, the ballet’s characters may seem like stock characters – the rebellious teenage daughter and the dashing but penniless farmhand, the wealthy country bumpkin, the pantomime dame widow. And yet, as the ballet progresses, we see that actually, there is a genuine sincerity to these characters – a depth, a humanity, which is explored by means of Ashton’s expressive, characterful choreography. They are very real. We understand them, we can relate to them, we sympathise with them.
Momoko Hirata shines as Lise, capturing the perfect balance between youthful girlish innocence, and a playful stubbornness. Her technique flawless, she moves with an effortless grace. Alongside Mathias Dingman’s impressive Colas, his movement masterful and charismatic, the two make an utterly captivating central couple. They appear as a young couple experiencing the excitement of first love, and fuse their courtly intimacy with comic moments as they tease one another, their chemistry very believable. Their many lifts are performed so very well, and one particular lift, where Lise sits on the palm of Colas, looks effortless.
At the start of the opening act, Lise wakes, but is unable to find Colas, so she ties her pink satin ribbon in a lovers knot, leaving it where he could easily find it. When Colas arrives, he takes the ribbon and ties it to his staff, proud to be the recipient of her love. When the lovers meet, they engage in a beautiful pas de deux, the ‘Pas de ruban’, and the ribbon is incorporated into the duet, as they use it to wrap round the other, and pull each other close. At one point, the lovers utilize the ribbon in such a way that, when tied round the other’s necks, when released, the ribbon itself is knotted in a clever criss-cross fashion, as they become entwined in their own lovers knot, bound together, a fitting and touching symbol of their love, a love that grows, that matures, that flourishes, that remains steadfast, throughout the ballet. Later, during the ‘Fanny Elssler pas de deux’, the two lovers dance together once more, with a Grande Adage for Lise and Colas, alongside eights other dancers with a ribbon each, their love even bigger, even stronger, than before.
There is a very touching, very human moment in Act III, wherein Lise, believing herself to be alone, locked in the farmhouse by her mother, begins to dream of married life in the iconic ‘When I’m Married’ mime sequence. Unaware Colas is in hiding, she dreams of her wedding, of a big dress with a long train and intricate veil. She dreams of motherhood, and of having, not one, not two, but three children, one of which she mimes putting across her knee and chastising, just as her own mother does to her. This is a wonderful nod to real and honest life, and also to relationships, not just romantic, but familial. When Colas bursts out from his hiding place, Lise is mortified, covering her face with a kerchief, such embarrassment more than relatable. However, Colas removes the kerchief from her face, and proudly declares that he wants ten children!
James Barton is outstanding as the wealthy Alain, full of personality and strong in character. A few horses short of a stable, unusually attached to his red umbrella, the character is clumsy and awkward, and gallops, childlike, through life. However, there is an almost pitiful innocence to him. Pushed by his father and her mother into an engagement with Lise, we have to wonder whether this is something he truly wants. Several times in the production, his father literally maneuvers him from behind, pushing him towards Lise, instructing him in how to act. In Act II, Alain and Lise are made to dance with other, and Alain tries his very best, although somewhat clumsily, to woo Lise. However, she makes it very clear where he love lies, and seizes every opportunity to be reunited with Colas. When he loses sight of her, Alain tries to come between other couples, and dance with other girls, but none will have him. He is mocked by the villagers and farmhands, and is dragged away by his father.
Similarly, in Act III, after Lise and Colas are together and their union blessed, Alain once again looks for another girl, one willing to accept the huge diamond ring he desperately out. Again, finding no one, he looks out to the audience, thrusting out the ring, giving the sense that he wants to be with somebody. Anybody. However, is this what he wants, or what he has been told to want? What he feels he should want? At the end of the play, when all other characters dance merrily off stage, singing heartily, and the farmhouse is left quiet, and in darkness, Alain slips in through the window, searches frantically, and finds his umbrella, which he presses to his lips, and too dances off stage merrily. He too got his happy ending.
Michael O’Hare is fantastic as Widow Simone, his performance reminiscent of Dan Leno’s music hall dame. O’Hare’s performance of the ballet’s celebrated ‘clog dance’ is fantastic, not forgetting that Leno himself became World Champion Clog Dancer in 1880. The relationship between mother and daughter here seems very real – the typical teenage girl, stubborn, independent of spirit, and her chastising, interfering mother who, in truth, only wants the best for her daughter. At times, the two display an endearing friendship, a touching playfulness, Lise sat on her mother’s knee and embracing. The next moment, however, Lise was across her mother’s knee, being smacked. Simone determines to marry her daughter to Alain, the son of wealthy vineyard Thomas, brilliantly played here by Jonathan Payne, and the two parents come together to arrange the nuptials. At the end of the ballet, Simone finally accepts the union of her daughter and Colas, and joins their hands together, with her blessing, to the annoyance of Thomas, who tears up the contract in anger. Colas takes Simone’s hand by way of thanks, but she pulls him towards her in a tight embrace. She is happy – happy that her daughter is happy, realising that she already has what is best for her, that she is mature enough to decide for herself.
Osbert Lancaster’s design gives the ballet scope, creating an enchanting pastoral panorama. Act I takes place in the farmyard, with large sunflowers growing up the exterior of the farmhouse, beehive and dovecote, and chicken coop, present. Act II is set in the cornfield, where we get a real sense of farm life, and of agriculture, whilst Act III takes place inside the farmhouse, tall and inviting. Alongside Peter Teigen’s lighting, the production is acutely atmospheric – and the illusion of sunsets, sunrises, rainstorms, and a warm, open fire, give the ballet a very cosy, romantic feel.
It is easy to see why this classic ballet has endured for so long, kept alive by means of several revivals. The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s exquisite production cements this work as a classic, providing blissful, lighthearted entertainment in these troubled times. The work’s very human characters echo down the ages and, the fundamental basics that characterise the ballet’s central relationships are timeless. This captivating production enchants audiences into a state of euphoria, as we lose ourselves in this idyllic pastoral paradise.