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BWW Review: AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE's 'La Fille mal gardée' Revives The Spirits With Bucolic Charm

Jeffrey Cirio and Isabella Boylston perform in
Frederick Ashton's "La Fille mal gardée".
Last performed at Ballet Theatre 13 years ago.
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

As a translated title, "The wayward daughter" calls to mind a scandalous time, but with "La Fille mal gardée", Frederick Ashton has given us folksy innocence, clever games, and sunny smiles. That smile was perfectly embodied by soloist Jeffrey Cirio, making a splendid debut as Colas in the opening performance of this life affirming ballet. He is more than ably assisted by a cast of tremendous artists who give of themselves completely to making these simple country characters sparkle. And what characters! With an opening danced by five chickens -- four hens and one manic rooster (the high flying Alexei Agoudine) -- how could it be otherwise? Were I not certain that I'd left my passport at home I would swear that we'd taken a refreshing jaunt to the English countryside - think Suffolk in all its majesty. There was even a real live show pony, though gratefully no onstage accidents.

A self-professed descendant of yeoman, in "La Fille" Ashton uses Ferdinand Hérold's score to reveal his "poor man's Pastoral Symphony". This is of course a reference to Beethoven's Sixth, to which Ashton was listening while ruminating upon this work. It is clear that this majestic symphony allowed Ashton to see a perfect arc for arranging his felicitous romp. Last performed at Ballet Theatre 13 years ago, the opening performance on May 24th, 2016 found this revival - with period perfect costumes and scenery designed by Osbert Lancaster, on loan from The National Ballet of Canada - brimming with enthusiasm and love. Every detail down to the clicking of sticks and tying of bows - this production was staged by Malin Thoors who inherited her duties from the recently departed fountain of information and the original Alain, Alexander Grant -- was beautifully rendered in a fast moving narrative that easily held one's attention. This company of extraordinary artists has rarely looked as delighted with its work. What a difference a ballet makes when the performers truly love what they are doing. The only missing detail was the telltale bend and swoop generously sprinkled throughout Ashton's oeurve. You know you're seeing an Ashton ballet when the rocking to and fro of the dancers induces bouts of swaying even as you recline in your seat. While this detail was sorely missed, the unbridled joy that the company radiated more than compensated.

This is a sweet ballet that requires a bright manner without resorting to saccharine schtick. For this performance that impetus came from the company, the leading man, and the star of the show. As Colas, one must be earnest in expressing his zeal for dancing, though always in relation to wedding the object of his affection. To that end, Mr. Cirio's double attitude turns en dedans could have used extra oomph and his pirouettes an extra touch of crispness to complete the wow factor. But with so much already in place - including an easy mastery of mime, effortlessly dominating the stage, virile partnering, tight batterie, stylish soutenu turns, and suspended leaps -- he is well on his way towards becoming a Colas for the ages. Never was this more present than during the famous Pas de Ruban. Using a length of ribbon that initiates childish games, we see the birth of love that drives Colas as he becomes further entangled within the thread. This is not an impatient love, rather this ardor glows with kindness and resolve. During what must have been a nerveracking sequence, Mr. Cirio calmly tied and wrapped each ribbon as if to say, "I know my aim is true; here I'll stay forever with you", until we had the perfect bouquet of the "X in a box". His variations -- especially during the May Day celebration in the forest - are a reminder that American Ballet Theatre attracts some of the most talented dancers in the world. In a word, wow. In my mind, Mr. Cirio has yet to return to the earth. I look forward to witnessing his Bluebird during Alexei Ratmansky's "The Sleeping Beauty".

In the plum role of Widow Simone, the great dance actor Roman Zhurbin all but stole the show. The level of specificity that this soloist displays is a marvel to observe. In Mr. Zhurbin's hands what could easily be a shrewish nag becomes a doting parent worried about securing the future of her daughter. That is the crux of this character's journey and what sets the plot in motion, yet every step along the way feels necessary and filled with love. Ashton gives this character a show-stopping clog dance -- Mr. Zhurbin's rhythms could use tightening, but then he sells it with such panache that this hardly matters -- outrageous gestures, and a joy de vivre that comes through in swishing steps, eyes that assess and disarm, and an exasperated skulk. With such an arsenal, it would be easy to oversell the part or to bomb in the comedy. After all, it's harder to sell comedy than drama, even when the moments are clearly demarcated by the score. The fact that Mr. Zhurbin conquered the humor so easily without ever distracting from the narrative of the show is almost a crime. Loose clogging aside, he has a preternatural understanding of timing that allows one to relax and drink in his work. Nothing should be this emotionally touching, hilarious, and good. And yet, what Mr. Zhurbin does as Widow Simone is. Even my war hardened viewing partner had to agree; we were both reduced to giggles by his gleeful shenanigans.

As Alain the foppish suitor for Widow Simone's daughter, Craig Salstein hit all of the right marks with a daffy smile, side-splitting lurch, and childish manner that endeared him to one's heart. Though he is the target of numerous tricks, he takes it all in stride as if it were part of the fun in living and shines with pleasure at being able to participate in the world. Happily, though this man-child does not get the girl - methinks he fears the fairer sex - being alive with his beloved umbrella turns out to be all that he needs. Anyone who is sent flying through the air on an umbrella during a summer storm and manages a delighted smile will surely inherit the earth. Final kudos to the corps members who complete this tapestry of splendor and transform the night into delight. If you are looking for a gorgeous evening of entertainment, you must take in this production. It joins Alexei Ratmansky's "Serenade After Plato's Symposium" as essential viewing for this year.

"La Fille mal gardée" runs through May 30th, 2016 at The Metropolitan Opera House. This cast repeats its performance on May 27th, 2016. For tickets and times, visit abt.org. In this cast, the title character Lise was performed by Isabella Boylston.

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

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