La Fille Mal Gardée is but a simple, comic tale of boy-meets-girl, yet undeniably one of Frederick Ashton’s finest. Ideationally set in the 18th century French countryside, the late choreographer’s sunny three-act piece introduces us to the vivacious Lise, her admittedly rather chiseled lover, Colas, and, despite the best efforts of Lise’s mother (the ever-watchful widow Simone), their lasting affection for one another. Ashton once described his Gallic arcadia as “a life in the country of eternally late spring, a leafy pastorale of perpetual sunshine and the humming of bees”, and The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s two-hour rendition at Sadler’s Wells remains true to this vision.
Momoko Hirata executes her Lise with an infectious smile throughout. Lise’s daydream sequence is perhaps her most endearing — after all, to dream of having not one, not two, but three babies, and of disciplining them with several hard slaps to the buttocks as she so expressly mimes to the audience is, well, the dream. How values have changed since 18th century France! Her male counterpart, Mathias Dingman, dazzles in his ease of strength and simultaneous fluidity, notably when performing the aptly-named ‘bum lift’ with none other than his lover. The duo are mesmerising in their Act II pas de ruban (ribbon dance), often accompanied by the lilting notes on a tucked-away harp. Hirata’s Lise and Dingman’s Colas are very much hopelessly-in-love, and charmingly so.
Simone is performed by the wonderful Michael O’Hare with the utmost élan, and this is delightfully evident in the memorable clog dance. A particularly jarring sight was his and the milkmaids’ sporting of a bizarre blend of pointe and clog, but this only adds to the comedy of La Fille. Simone’s noticeably ample bustle and shower pouf-like bonnet are also part and parcel of a role that is traditionally played by a male. Alain, Lise’s hapless suitor, is equally deserving of a mention, and it is his lovable cloddishness and loyalty to a certain red umbrella that steals many a laugh from the audience.
The ensemble’s blend of candy store stripes, cornflower blues, and bucolic ginghams during the Maypole dance — nay, not that sort of pole — are a feast for the eyes, while the all-too-brief novelty of a real pony trotting about on stage certainly proves a treat for (not necessarily restricted to) younger members of the audience. A sprightly chicken quartet also makes an appearance at the beginning of each act, making for quite a startling but all-round entertaining spectacle. The ballet is set to 18th century composer Ferdinand Hérold’s adaptation of yet another adaptation, a pastiche if you will. Ashton’s choreography for La Fille is also notable in that it matches the Danish Bournonville style, characterised by movements of imponderable lightness, with grander, Bolshoi-esque executions. It is truly a sight to behold, for both seasoned and newly-christened viewers of ballet.
Is this a daring, politically-charged performance piece bound to resonate with the deeply ingrained societal issues at large today? Not in the slightest. At its very heart, La Fille is a whirl of light-hearted romance, Battenberg-inspired costumery and an obligatory happy ending, appealing to a whole spectrum of theatre-goers. But that’s all it needs to be.