Review: Royal Ballet in La Fille Mal Gardee at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 28 Apr 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 10 March 2010

Royal Ballet 'La Fille mal gardee' Dancers: Carlos Acosta, Marianela Nunez. Photo: Bill Cooper

A ballet by this incongruous and awkward name has been played in London since the 1790s, when it was colloquially known by the anglicised nickname of “Filly-Me-Gardy”, which despite its obvious aphoristic slang makes a good deal more sense. Even the French have some difficulty with the linguistic style of the “daughter badly guarded”! At the end of the nineteenth century, the Russians renamed the Petipa/Ivanov version as Vain Precautions, which more succinctly describes a widow’s attempts to keep her daughter away from the lusty attentions of the local “Jack-the-lad”.

This titular conjecture serves to highlight the abiding peculiarity of Frederick Ashton’s masterpiece, which is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. It is a particularly English ballet, portraying the simplest of village love stories in an idyllic rural community bathed in the colours and joy of the harvest. It has a Pantomime Dame doing a Lancashire clog dance before the villagers gambol around a maypole: but then she returns to her French Farmhouse with a ‘Vente’ poster on the wall. Perhaps Ashton was making a symbolic ballet in 1960 that expressed his support for the European Common Market (begun in 1958) or maybe he could see the future of the Widow Simone’s farmhouse becoming a Gîte pour les anglais!

Whether we’re seeing Constable’s Suffolk or Watteau’s Dordogne, this is a truly joyful ballet, providing the most succinct summary of Ashton’s magical choreography in a story-telling context. But it needs the sunniest of performances to make it shine and nothing on this opening night fell short of the finest expectations. As Lise (‘la fille’), Marianella Nuñez illustrates exquisitely – with a permanent veneer of charm and vivacity – the cheeky, radiant, hopeful, dreamy anticipations of a beautiful teenager with the world at her feet, but needing to outwit the significant barrier of a nosy mum outside her door. Carlos Acosta has no problem whatsoever in being the local hero; I expect his DNA would exude a virile swagger under the microscope. Every action and intent signifies that he’s the man; but the controlled virtuosity of his solos and the strength of his partnering in the two gorgeous pas de deux emphasise his machismo with a very bold exclamation mark! Accomplishing the extremes of ballet technique in such an effortless manner, Acosta and Nuñez exemplify the perfection of their match as a couple destined to be together in ballet’s best version of a simple romantic comedy. There are, of course, many tricky manoeuvres with ribbons while dancing, all of which are expertly delivered by both the Principals and an attractively disciplined corps de ballet.

Apart from the show-stopping Shetland pony (the adorable Formakin Peregrine) who behaved himself impeccably in the journey from Scenes 1 to 2 of the first Act, the other star turn was the impressive Will Tuckett with his definitive Widow Simone – a performance gushing comic genius in every moment, including a couple of impromptu asides to deal with unhelpful props and continued in character throughout the curtain calls. I’ve never seen a more impressive clog-dancing Dame! Jonathan Howells also merits special attention for his portrayal of the simpleton, Alain, the son of a prosperous vineyard owner (Christopher Saunders) whom the Widow wants to see betrothed to Lise. It’s a potentially farcical role that needs to be played with a certain sympathy, which Howells delivers with detailed subtlety. Alain is certainly no match for Colas but when he returns in the postscript to the final scene to retrieve his beloved red umbrella, we sense that he has all he needs to be happy.

It’s a difficult call but I think I’d recommend La Fille Mal Gardée as a first-time ballet-watching experience. It may lack the passion and theatrical drama of other classic, narrative ballets but it’s a simple story, easily told, with magical imagery (including dancing hens that are bigger than a horse!). No-one dies, everyone ends happier and it provides a life-affirming shot of simple, candy-coloured joy.

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