Review: Royal Ballet - La Fille mal gardée – Live Cinema Relay

Performance: 5 May 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 7 May 2015

Royal Ballet's Natalia Osipova in 'La Fille mal gardée' ©ROH. Tristram Kenton, 2015.

Empire, Leicester Square: 5 May

Imagine being able to take a long, loitering look at the face of a much-loved friend and thereby discovering a plethora of gorgeous, pulchritudinous minutiae of which you were previously unaware. The Royal Ballet takes great pride in its Sleeping Beauty but these much-improving cinema transmissions are revealing a hidden beauty in all its work that is not often fully appreciated from the auditorium.

This is how I felt throughout the live cinema relay of La Fille mal gardée, a ballet I adore, have seen rehearsed and taught to new dancers, and watched on stage countless times. I thought I knew all the nuances and hidden secrets of this delightful ballet but the searching close-up eye of the cameras, under the expert direction of Ross MacGibbon, revealed a level of glorious detail that surpassed all my expectations.

Frederick Ashton created one of the world’s greatest romantic comedy ballets and in so doing, he also made it one of the hardest to dance cleanly: not just because of the intricacy of technique and the peculiar demands of the soft, English style (especially in the arms and upper body – port de bras and épaulement), established by his choreography; but in the simultaneous need to manage both pet and paraphernalia. His steps come with much associated trickery with ribbons, a maypole, an umbrella, a flute, contracts, neckerchiefs and a butter churn, not to mention the delightful scene-stealing Shetland Pony (Peregrine deservedly getting the first name check of this review)!

It would be disingenuous to suggest that all went according to design since both the ballet’s human stars, Natalia Osipova as the wayward daughter, Lise, and Steven McRae as her beloved Colas, were somewhat off-key in nervous opening solos. Even poor old Peregrine had to deal with pulling a cart that caught up with the backdrop: he dealt with it like a true professional, refused to get flustered and continued to pull towards the other side of the stage!

McRae is fully at home with the English style he has grown up assimilating from The Royal Ballet School onwards; but it remains somewhat alien to his partner, although Osipova tries so hard to get that softness of upper body; that ability to move the arms as an integral part of the whole body and not limbs that follow through. She is such a superlative dancer with hardly a weakness in her all-around technique that it is refreshing to see her deal with these new challenges thrown up by a choreographer who died when she was just two.

If the first scene had a few issues, the second act was one of the finest I’ve seen. The performance of both McRae and Osipova was off the scale of any rating; Osipova’s acting in the mime scene in which she imagines her future with Colas (love, marriage, pregnancy, three children) – not realising he is hiding in the room and watching her – was utterly charming and the sense of dance theatre conveyed by both principals was of the very highest order. And, the same attention to detail went through the cast. Philip Mosley is a finely-tuned Widow Simone, acting Ashton’s nuanced interpretation of the role with great skill (although his “clog” dance was notably cautious and the taps often inaudible); and Gary Avis brings a foppish authority to the brief but important role of the Village Notary that is so often underplayed.

Hats off to the whole cast especially those in the background who have their chance to shine in the close-ups of these cinema relays. Thus we can see the vital importance of Christina Arestis, Olivia Cowley and others in the intricate ribbon dance by Lise’s friends; and appreciate the collaborative effort needed to ensure that the maypole strands are not knotted. It was especially pleasing to hear – in the filmed preamble to the live performance – more about the cockerel and hens. Their opening dawn dance is so crucial to setting the mood for the whole ballet and so difficult to perform that it is a particular beauty spot that was well worth the extra attention.

We are beginning to see some stretched imagination in the use of camera angles, especially in the second act: one shot, from low level, stage right, past the sleeping Widow to Lise canoodling with Colas at the farmhouse door, was remarkable and there were many other innovative surprises in the way we see the action. Of course, it is a ballet with a lot going on and some transitions and background scenarios were lost; but MacGibbon and his team did a great job.

The pre-show and interval chat is also improving. Darcey Bussell is growing into her role as a presenter (although she still needs notes)t; he aforementioned focus on the fowl was a great introduction and it is charming to hear young dancers such as Meaghan Grace Hinkis talk about the challenges of dancing as a hen. It is the kind of miniature feature that brings these relays to life.

Bussell’s recorded interview with Lesley Collier (a former Royal Ballet principal, now responsible for coaching the role of Lise) was frank and illuminating. But, the live interval interviews are still too “insider/chummy/lovey”, an alienating few moments that play against the inclusiveness of the overall intention. Instead of the stock interview with the director, the producers should take a leaf from the Bolshoi TV coverage and have someone talk about the music; about Osbert Lancaster’s designs; about the context of the ballet, in relation to Dauberval’s original scenario, the whole idea of capturing a Suffolk spring or introducing the 1960s, a decade prefaced in a sense by Ashton’s production.

It was charming to see Peregrine get a basket of “munchies” in place of a curtain call and (despite the “insider” tag) also for Jeanetta Laurence (who is soon to retire as the Royal Ballet’s assistant director) to receive recognition for her many years of service to the company (with filmed tributes from her two former directors, amongst others).

I used to think that these cinema relays were wonderful at bringing ballet to places where folk are denied the chance to see the art live; now, though that remains true, I think that they are fascinating addenda to anyone’s enjoyment of watching ballet. If you saw La Fille mal gardée on the Royal Opera House stage, seeing it at a cinema, even the very next day, will bring a new appreciation for the face of this much-loved friend.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photo: Natalia Osipova in La Fille mal gardée ©ROH, Tristram Kenton

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