The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, London
9 March – 26 April
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2010 by Judith Cruickshank
So, Frederick Ashton’s wayward daughter has reached her 50th birthday, as fresh and as lovely as ever. I can’t think of a ballet more guaranteed to lift the spirits and it has been out of the Royal Ballet repertory for far too long, especially in these gloomy times and when it seems that winter in London will never end.
And unlike the choreographer’s “Cinderella”, which begins a run of performances in April, the original décor and costumes of “La Fille Mal Gardée” remain virtually untouched, so that the first thing we see when the curtain goes up is Osbert Lancaster’s wonderful front cloth locating this, originally French, story firmly in Ashton’s beloved county of Suffolk.
Watching the ballet again you can only wonder at how brilliantly Ashton wove together the various elements; the elegance of the danse d’école and the vigour and vitality of English folk dances, the beautiful Russian mime – as taught to him by no less an artist than Tamara Karsavina – and the ridiculously endearing pantomime chickens.
The first night cast was led by Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta. It’s hard to think of a better choice of ballerina for the heroine, Lisa. Nuñez possesses the brilliant technique and sunny personality necessary for the role. She has also demonstrated that she has the ability to show us changing and deeper emotions through the way she shapes her dancing, and Ashton’s heroine is far from being one dimensional.
But on this showing, beautifully as she danced (and the company boasts no finer all-round technician) tiny but telling details of style were missing, and there are more shades of feeling and emotion in this role than we saw at this first performance. In particular, I missed the major change of tone that should come in Act II after Colas bursts out of his hiding place in the corn sheaves. At this point Ashton moves from light hearted romance to a profound statement about the enduring beauties of marriage, family and the building of a life together.
But this relies as much on the dancer playing Colas as it does on the ballerina, and Carlos Acosta spent most of the evening wearing a broad grin; endearing but not exactly subtle or even suitable. If I say that he was dancing at less than his best it was still a mightily impressive performance by most standards, and his final series of pirouettes was just beautiful.
Will Tuckett’s Widow Simone has been widely praised, but with the best will (oops!) in the world I can’t concur with that opinion. True he has toned down some of his excesses, but the result is a pallid version of a wildly misconceived interpretation – a vulgar drag queen whose gags are signalled long in advance and over-emphasised. There is no hint of the conflicting emotions that motivate Simone’s behaviour.
Jonathan Howells as the simpleton Alain was more successful, though I missed the pathos which can wring your heart at the moment when he looks towards the audience for someone, anyone, to accept his big, sparkly ring. But the glee with which he rode his red umbrella in the storm scene was infectious.
The corps de ballet looked under-rehearsed. The harvesters dance in Act I in particular seemed as if it might all fall into confusion at any moment. And perhaps someone could remind the dancers that in addition his familiar (and I suspect now overstated) cry of “bend more”, Ashton was fanatical about beautiful legs and feet. There were some distinctly relaxed extremities at the first performance of this run, not to mention some inappropriate invented business. “They don’t need to act”, Ashton once told me about one of his story ballets. “It’s all there in the choreography.”
If I seem overly-critical it is because Ashton’s Fille mal Gardée is not just a jolly romp with pink ribbons and a pony. Lisa and her lover, even the clowns, are fully rounded characters as Ashton conceived them, not simply stereotypes. Details of style and chorography matter in conveying this. Happy as I was to see this revival, I want to see a clearer view of Ashton’s original intention. And I suspect that at least some of the dancers would find it even more rewarding.
The Royal Ballet is giving “Fille”12 performances this season and is offering six casts for the pair of lovers. While management has an obligation to provide opportunities for up and coming members of the company, as well as giving audiences a chance to see their favourites in these role, there
is something to be said for putting out fewer casts and thus allowing more time for careful preparation. It’s surely a policy worth considering and the Royal Ballet owes Ashton at least that degree of consideration.
Photos of Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta in "La Fille Mal Gardee" are by Bill Cooper.