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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 August 2018— There could be no better choice for the summer dance season in Paris than Sir Frederick Ashton’s exuberant, perfectly constructed version of La Fille mal gardée, a timeless work of genius created for Covent Garden in 1960. No troubled princes, wraith-like sylphs, ghosts of young maidens or teenage suicides here, but the happiest of ballets ever created. Lise and Colas are two fun-loving, high-spirited young people at the centre of a ballet full of laughter and perpetual sunshine.

The British choreographer, artistic director of the Royal Ballet from 1963 to 1970, was inspired by Dauberval’s original creation, premiered in Bordeaux in 1789, which had all but disappeared by the 1850’s. Encouraged by Tamara Karsavina, whose contribution to the ballet is quite considerable, and supported by the research of Ivor Guest, Sir Fred tells the story of a widow’s daughter who is in love with a handsome young farmer. Mixing together Russian classicism with English country dancing, traditional pantomime and touches of his own poetic genius, he relates how the two of them thwart the mother’s ambition to marry off Lise to Alain, the simpleton son of a rich landowner. The ballet, a fluid collection of ideas from many sources, is a work in which riotous comedy is perfectly balanced by lyrical duets and magnificent bravura displays of classical technique.

Alice Renavand and François Alu in
La Fille mal gardée
Photo: Francette Levieux

La Fille mal gardée takes place in Ashton’s beloved county of Suffolk, a lovely rural area in Southern England. The choreographer imagined a time of endless spring, of sunny days, harvesting, and pretty girls dancing around a maypole; a time of peace, calm and serenity. Amusingly, and in tune with Ashton’s own nature, the ballet opens with a farmyard scene of a cockerel crowing at dawn followed by 4 strutting, feathery hens whose whimsical little dance sets the good-humoured tone of the entire work.

In the first scene, Colas, interpreted by François Alu*, is courting Lise, Alice Renavand, and they are flirting happily while she is churning butter for her mother. Renavand is a lovable and engaging Lise, full of a zest for life, ready to play any trick on her mother. Technically brilliant, running across the stage on her toes posed no problem, while her considerable dramatic gifts were
exploited in the enchanting mime scene in which she dreams of a future life with Colas. Believing herself to be alone in the cottage, she sits on a bale of straw imagining she’s wearing a pretty wedding dress and carrying a bouquet of flowers. She’s no simpering princess, but a wholesome peasant girl who takes immense pleasure in a future pregnancy, as she indicates her enormous stomach and her desire for not one, two, but three small children. It was both funny and heart-warming.

The famous ribbon dances, which were first performed by Karsavina in a version at the Mariinsky Theatre, were developed throughout the work. They were full of charm in Act 1, where hero and heroine first reel and then undo a long roll of ribbon before playing horse and cart with it, twisting and turning until they make a cat’s cradle, resulting in a roar of approval from the audience.

The choreographer took the idea further during the harvest festivities when the village girls transformed the ribbons into a gigantic cartwheel as they danced around a maypole culminating in Alu lifting Renavand high above his head where she balanced on the palm of his hand with ease.

Alu is much more than an immense crowd-pleaser with a rock-solid technique. He’s a true artist with a big personality and plenty to say. He was a happy-go-lucky, confident Colas, out to play any ruse on the mother to get his girl. With his genuine love of fun and inborn audience appeal, he was also totally at ease with the highly technical, demanding choreography. The high, sweeping arcs of his leaps, his dazzling turns at differing speeds, and his soft, surefooted landings held the audience breathless, and more than one spectator questioned whether he and Renavand also formed a couple off stage, so convincing and natural seemed their love affair.

François Alu in
La Fille mal gardée
Photo: Francette Levieux

Simon Valastro, who gave an unforgettable performance in the difficult role of Alain in 2007 when the ballet was first performed by the French company, became Widow Simone this time round. He was hilarious, giving Ashton’s choreography everything he’d got. A magnificent character dancer, his performance went beyond that of the traditional British pantomime dame, accomplishing the burlesque with grace and never pushing a joke too far. Spectators were chuckling at each of his appearances.

One of the highlights of the ballet is his jaunty Lancastrian clog dance, for Valastro is also a superb dancer. Ashton first choreographed a solo for the mother, based on a folk-dance festival he’d seen, before enlarging it for some of the village girls to join in. It was a moment of sheer joy.

Allister Madin gave a credible performance as Alain, the rejected suitor, one of Ashton’s greatest comic characters, a difficult role to interpret as Alain is not an outright fool. He’s not trying to be silly, it’s just the way he is.

Discovering Lise and Colas locked up together in her bedroom doesn’t overly upset him; he’s more concerned with retrieving his precious red umbrella at the end of the ballet and his appearance on stage at the close of the work makes the audience smile with affection rather than irritation.

The tuneful music was set to an arrangement by John Lanchbery of Hérold’s original score for an 1828 version of the ballet, a score which owed much to melodies by Rossini as well as Lanchbery’s own compositions. Osbert Lancaster was responsible for the attractive atmospheric backdrop of harvesting, sheaves of corn and cows munching in the fields, while the costumes were modelled from 19 th century English rural prints which Ashton showed him.

* François Alu, 25, one of the most outstanding male dancers of the French company, currently holds the rank of Premier Danseur.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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