The Arts Desk
, April 2010
If you’re going to dance before the future King of England, and your company bears his family’s crest, you’d better dance well. No one could really be in any doubt that the Royal Ballet would put on a grand show with its new revival of Frederick Ashton’s 1960 La Fille mal gardée; but it was only at the end, when a shimmering cast in this always shimmering production took its bow with emphatic gestures to a box up on the right, that some of us in the audience realised who’d been watching [wrote James Woodall on 10 March. Ismene Brown reviews a second cast below.]
Prince Charles and his wife are indeed very busy with ballet: Covent Garden last night, Birmingham Hippodrome tonight. The Heir Apparent’s presence indubitably adds bouquets of class and glamour at such prestige events; but there was no shortage of precisely that on display on the Opera House stage last night. In the roles of Colas and Lise, Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nuñez are inevitably a vibrant draw and are ideally matched as the lusty, unstoppable sweethearts in Jean Dauberval’s 1789 famous creation.
French d’origine La Fille is, but revolutionary it isn’t, or wasn’t, in spite of the date; bucolic, charming, scintillating, a million miles from the lusher, more decadent Romantic ballets of the late 19th century —more Beaumarchais than Baudelaire. The plot is blessedly simple and silly: a maid is being wooed by a young buck but her fishwife mother (William Tuckett in a classic character role) favours her betrothal to a wealthy winemaker’s Andrew Aguecheek-like son (Jonathan Howells clodhops, perfectly, his way through the thankless role of Alain). The setting is pastoral; the sets (over two acts), by Osbert Lancaster, are as fresh as a daisy.
The ballet is replete with tomfoolery and—I think this is part of the point of La Fille—the opposite of what we think of as ballet: bobbing chickens (very Ashton that: think The Tales of Beatrix Potter), clog-dancing, Alain failing to dance. Expert clumsiness is there to fanfare the genuine poetry of the corps de ballet and the soaring refinement of the principal duo, their unostentatious erotic chiming. For this, dancers of supreme confidence are required, and neither star in this casting shortchanges. It’s to give nothing away to reveal that love wins out in the end.
But what’s interesting about Covent Garden’s revival is its underlining how English, in Ashton’s light-limbed conception, La Fille became—even with two Hispanics (from Cuba and Argentina) as protagonists—darting, feminine, ironic. Fifty years on, La Fille remains central to the Royal’s repertoire, exemplary of its lyrical, unflashy character: with all passion present but finely hidden behind restraint (and never spent), and the dancing at the service of the drama, rarely of the dancer.
Yet there’s no denying Nuñez’s clarity of line, her wit and fascinating suppleness, star allure fashioned by intelligence—Lise, a young woman who knows her own mind, must exude not just physical but mental brightness - rather than mere technical bravura. Acosta, who must have been charismatic in the womb, never overplays the innate manliness of Colas, yet can’t help but stun with his giddying leaps and almost indecently natural stage sense. In their pas de deux, intimate but unfussy, the pair prove that grace and conviction can uplift and mesmerise even in the earthiest and most comedic of contexts.
This is a funny, reassuring, inspiring two-hours-plus at the Royal Ballet. It is also a necessary tribute to one of the great choreographic artists of the 20th century. We know, somehow, that La Fille, in its dramatic import, matters little. But if you’re partial to classical dance and open to how it can, on occasion, marry the ridiculous to the sublime, this production should be top of the list. The DVD of Nuñez and Acosta’s performance is now on release.
ISMENE BROWN adds:
It’s a mark of the strength of the Royal Ballet’s current roster of ballerinas that the delectable Laura Morera has to wait down the casts to get her one night as Lise. Scheduled last night to dance with Ricardo Cervera, she found herself through injury squired by the shooting young star Steven McRae—making this a Fille of spontaneous lovingness and joyful sexual combustion.
Morera was the Royal Ballet School’s stellar graduate 14 years ago, a brilliant and musical girl from the off, but only at 30 did she at last reach principal rank, one earned with hard labour through every harlot and every side-dish divert in the company’s considerable cupboardful. A remarkable actress in dramatic parts (catch her subtle Tatiana in Onegin next October), she is an outstanding Ashton dancer through her earthy femininity, deft footwork, her unfeigned love for the audience, and above all her natural instinct to catch a tune in her body and dance with it.
As Lise she was in her element, a bonny, outdoorsy milkmaid from the start, as fresh, warm and tasty as the curds and whey in her bowl in the barn. There may be more intelligent Lises around, but none more winningly communicative or more loving of her frightful mother—Alastair Marriott doing a David Walliams act as Widow Simone. And, with notable wit, none more workshy either—Morera’s horror when mother handed her a broom was a picture.
The chemistry between her and McRae’s Colas felt real, a true and sensual bond between two village lovers, both swift on their feet and metaphorically with their tongues too, and destined for a long, sexy marriage. McRae, one of the most gifted young men in the Royal Ballet for a generation, debuted in this role this month, and though he can lack warmth, here he tempered his impressive attack on his steps with a smiling approachability, and the joy of this rural couple’s mutual devotion spread far beyond the modesty of their tale to suffuse the whole auditorium.
The ribbon went wrong in their Act 1 pas de deux, but they had the quick wits to mime imaginary ribbons, and you noticed twice as much the softly succulent and erotic nuance to Ashton’s lifts. That’s the effect of Ashton’s Fille—it is spring incarnate, it’s buds bursting, it’s love, it’s sex, and it’s fecundity. This is part of why it is so achingly poignant.
Cheerfulness rather than poignancy coloured Liam Scarlett’s cherubic Alain—it takes a rare kind of dramatic courage and insight to play a wealthy, mentally afflicted boy whom the village mocks, while simultaneously making everybody feel good about it. I was much tickled by Gary Avis in his tiny second-act role as the Village Notary making as much important fuss as possible about signing off the marriage between Lise and poor Alain, and then just as much fuss about tearing up the contract and practically forcing Lise and Colas onto each other. In gems of character snippets like this Ashton indelibly altered the class hierarchy of ballet, giving the leads huge competition for the audience’s attention, and ensuring that the entire evening is stuffed with diverting theatrical amusements.
A bouquet to conductor Barry Wordsworth for the frozen moment of stillness in Act 2 when we shared Morera’s prayer that her mother had finally gone to sleep and she could slip out to snog Colas. You could have heard a pin drop, I believe the entire auditorium held its breath as one, all with Lise, absorbed in love, and absolutely not to be denied. The music stole in as quiet as a mouse, Lise crept away—and Colas appeared at her window. How utterly adorable this ballet is. No one should miss it.