“La Fille mal gardée”
Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris
June 25 and 26, 2007
by David Vaughan
copyright ©2007 by David Vaughan
It has taken a while for the work of Frederick Ashton to gain a foothold at the Ballet of the Paris Opéra. When Rudolf Nureyev first took over the company, in the early 80s, he wanted to present “La Fille mal gardée.” There was a contretemps of some kind, and Ashton withdrew permission. Instead, the company took on the version recently staged in Geneva by Heinz Spoerli. When “Rhapsody” entered the repertory briefly, in 1996, it didn’t make much of an impression. Then, in 2004, someone had the bright idea of putting on an “Entente Cordiale” gala, with members of the Paris company partnering dancers from the Royal Ballet—Laurent Hilaire with Darcey Bussell in Ashton’s “Awakening” pas de deux from “The Sleeping Beauty,” Manuel Legris with Leanne Benjamin in the “Thaïs” pas de deux, among others. The Royal Ballet itself had a big success with “A Month in the Country” the last time it appeared in Paris.
Now, at last, “La Fille mal gardée” has been mounted in a summer revival that opened on June 22nd and played through July 15th. True, it was being rehearsed when a large contingent of the company was on tour in Australia. Alexander Grant, to whom Ashton left the rights to the ballet, supervised the production as usual, and presumably was free to choose dancers from all ranks of the company. Thus, the first cast was led by Dorothée Gilbert and Nicolas Le Riche, both of them “étoiles.” In the second cast Lise was danced by Mathilde Froustey, a “sujet,” and Colas by Mathieu Ganio (“étoile”). These were the casts I saw, with Laurent Novis or Michaël Denard (both of them former principals, returning as guest artists) as Simone, and Simon Valastro (“sujet”), the first cast’s Alain. At a later performance Svetlana Lunkina, who has danced Lise at the Bolshoi, was to appear as a guest artist, among other further cast changes.
As always, the audience (sold out both times I went) adored the ballet. I won’t say that every nuance of Ashton style was present on stage—one could imagine him saying “bend more.” After all, the dancers’ training and experience in an eclectic repertory are very different from those of the Royal Ballet company and students. “Fille” is in many ways a sweet, simple ballet, but it is not easy to dance. If it looks very English at Covent Garden, it undeniably looked French at the Palais Garnier, and why not? Its origins, after all, go back to Bordeaux in 1789.
Both Gilbert and Froustey danced as beautifully as one could wish, successfully accomplishing such passages as the “ribbon” promenade in the second scene of Act I. Mathieu Ganio, who is the son of dancers (Denys Ganio and Dominique Khalfouni), was a little lightweight for Colas, but danced elegantly, though he had difficulties with some of the partnering. Le Riche was sturdier, if less involved. Both couples, I thought, found the closest rapport in the sublime final pas de deux, an encouraging sign.
As far as I know there is no strong tradition in French theater of men taking women’s parts en travesti—at least not in the way of the pantomime “dame” in England. Stanley Holden, the great original Widow Simone, was within that tradition, as was Ashton himself in his adorable befuddled Stepsister in “Cinderella.” Both Novis and Denard created a believable, testy yet endearing character, and avoided camp. Denard did a somewhat modified clog dance, abbreviating the slides (Novis ended up on the floor, in the splits). The biggest individual triumph was Valastro’s Alain, funny and touching, a breakout performance for someone at the bottom of the list of “sujets.” The corps de ballet, I’m glad to say, sang lustily at the end, having danced throughout as if they enjoyed what they were doing.
I saw the ballet early in the run of sixteen performances, and all the dancers surely became more at home in their roles as time went on. It is to be hoped that the phrase in the program, “entrée au répertoire,” is no less than precise, and that “Fille” will be danced again (and again) at the Paris Opéra in future. The more the company performs it, the more they will find their way into Ashton’s style.
Photos (both by Sébastien Mathé) courtesy Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris:
First: Nicolas Le Riche
Second: Mathilde Froustey et Mathieu Ganio