Review: Royal Ballet - La Fille mal gardée - Royal Opera House

Performance: 16 April - 5 May 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 22 April 2015

The Royal Ballet 'La Fille Mal Gardee' Vadim Muntagirov & Laura Morera ©ROH, Tristram Kenton, 2015.

Performance reviewed: 16 April

Vadim Muntagirov celebrated his 25th birthday by breathing new life into a 226 year-old “boy”; for that is how long it is since the character of a young farmer, Colas, was first given ballet steps by the French choreographer, Jean Dauberval. That first performance took place in Paris (on 1 July 1789), amidst the rumblings of discontent that led to the French Revolution.

Dauberval’s ballet would probably now be little more than a footnote in history but for Frederick Ashton. His production for The Royal Ballet came about some 180 years’ after the original but it is now the classic interpretation of this ballet with the unpronounceable and almost untranslatable French title: the more literal “The daughter, badly guarded” has morphed into “The wayward daughter”; although the ballet is now known generally as just “Fille”.

A ballet with a narrative that is as French as its title has been delightfully transposed into Ashton’s idyllic, pastoral impressions of an “eternally late spring”, imagined in his beloved Suffolk countryside, but harking back to the turn of the previous century; largely inspired through Ashton’s reading of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. “The country of today seems a poor noisy thing by comparison”, wrote Ashton, back in 1960.

Nonetheless, Osbert Lancaster’s airy and jolly “water-colour” designs provide a visible indication of the ballet’s French antecedents (not least in the language of the poster in the Widow Simone’s kitchen). Incidentally, Lancaster’s famous drop curtain appears to have been especially prescient of today’s “noisy” world; since the seven oddly-shaped, overlarge black birds he features, looming over the distant landscape, now look distinctly like jet fighters flying in formation. A sight not unfamiliar in today’s East Anglia!

It should be acknowledged that Ferdinand Hérold’s music, which makes up the majority of the score, orchestrated by the late Jack Lanchbery, is also as French as it comes; full of charming melodies and leit-motifs replete with descriptive characterisations. Together with Lancaster’s set designs and Ashton’s choreography it comprises a triple whammy of creative artistry that comes together to ensure this ballet’s place among the greats.

But, back to Muntagirov! The key figure of Colas is often taken for granted in this ballet about “the wayward daughter”. In fact, Ivor Guest’s definitive book about the ballet devotes a chapter to just about every conceivable aspect but omits the principal male role. Yet, Colas is much more than just the object of Lise’s waywardness; in many respects, his joker’s sweet nature sets the scene for a ballet that – in the words of the great Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina (to whom Ashton turned for advice, having never seen the ballet performed before) – “..should charm with innocence and should not be interrupted by any other mood”. Muntagirov truly charmed with a pot pourri of innocence mixed with a great sense of theatre, an effortless command of fun and scintillating technique. In 1960, Ashton wrote that his ballet “…lends itself to be infused with new life”, and – more than a quarter of a century after the choreographer’s death – Muntagirov proves his point.

Notwithstanding the jubilant achievement of Muntagirov’s outstanding debut, it would have meant little to the success of this revival without an appropriate chemistry between his Colas and Laura Morera’s Lise; and it must be said that theirs was a match that sparked every time they were together, both in dance and in their mimed interaction. Now in her late 30s and having been a dancer with The Royal Ballet for 20 years, Morera rarely takes the limelight in the starring role on an opening night. She is utterly convincing as the young headstrong, warm-hearted, joyful and romantic heroine and brings a fleetness and lyricism to the character of Lise that is admirable in every way.

Since he joined The Royal Ballet (from English National Ballet) in January 2014, Muntagirov has been paired with several ballerinas but this is the closest any partnership has come to emulating the expressiveness of his performances with Daria Klimentová at ENB, before the latter’s retirement. There seems to be magic in the right pairing of an experienced ballerina with the dynamic, younger male dancer and could it be that here is a partnership that might come close to the remarkable synergy achieved between Muntagirov and Klimentová? Well, in La Fille mal gardée that is certainly the case. It usually takes a while for a partnership to have such obvious alchemy in a harmonious confidence that pervades both partners’ performances; but these two have reached that glorious alignment at the first time of asking.

Will Tuckett has such experience in the role of Widow Simone that every glance, every action is a masterclass in the Great British tradition of middle-aged, cross-dressing, comedic acting – from Old Mother Riley, through Les Dawson to Mrs Brown – and Tuckett performs the famous clog solo with a gleeful sense of music hall timing. Gary Avis brings a larger-than-life, swaggering pomposity to the rich vineyard owner, Thomas; and Paul Kay is suitably charming as his simpleton son, Alain, intended to be betrothed to Lise but rather more attached to his red umbrella. Throughout the cast The Royal Ballet were a credit to Ashton’s legacy and to his belief that the ballet would – like the subject matter – be an eternal spring, infused with a rich new life through each revival.

The evening was all the more special for being dedicated to Mary Clarke, the distinguished dance writer and long-time editor of Dancing Times, who died last month. Immediately after the 1960 premiere of La Fille mal gardée she wrote that “one recognizes the touch of a master craftsman; the canniness of an expert, experienced man of the theatre.” Like Clarke’s writing, it is craftsmanship that – in such good hands – easily stands the test of time.

Continues in repertory until 5 May 2015

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

Photos: Tristram Kenton, courtesy Royal Ballet

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