BWW Reviews: Ballet in Cinema from Emerging Pictures Presents 'La fille mal gardee'
I have to admit that my history with La fille mal gardée goes back a long way. It was the first Ashton ballet I ever saw when I visited London with my parents in the early 1960s.My world, at that time, was bordered in New York from 14th up to 96th streets, mainly on the west side. I had never been in the country, and the only chicken I saw were the ones we ate. My ballet exposure centered on the New York City Ballet, for the simple reason that you could buy an inexpensive ticket in the balcony, and by the last dance on the program move down to the orchestra. But I was very lucky: I had seen Arthur Mitchell manipulating Diana Adams, Edward Villella jumping as high an elephant's eye, and Patricia Wilde crashing through Stravinsky music as the Firebird. I even got to see a number of Broadway musicals, courtesy of my rich hot shot uncle, who would buy me a seat to everything that sang and danced. I saw Gwen Verdon in Redhead, still the best Broadway dance performance in my memory, and I was only 8 years old.
Redhead had a story, sort of. The Balanchine ballets were not, what we call, story ballets. There was Nutcracker and even Liebesleider Walzer, supposedly, might have had a story line, but my father-who knew music-said this wasn't so, it was just a dance reflecting and broadening the concept of the waltz. But everyone agreed that Jillana was a knockout in her dress and that Violette Verdy performed exquisitely--but this was years before scholars started analyzing the ballet and told us that the Verdy character was the one who dies. I still don't get it. The closest thing to a story ballet, in my mind, was La Sonnambula with Allegra Kent wearing, what I believe the Jewish Forward described, as a white schmatte. But, then, Allegra Kent was really Iris Cohen, so the Jewish Forward was, in its own broad minded way, very proud of her. When's the last time that you saw any Cohen dance? But then, they were proud of Mildred Herman-I mean Melissa Hayden. And Maria Tallchief was not, by any stretch of the imagination, Miriam Tannenbaum.
So it was with some surprise that I first saw Fille. Here there were not only chickens that danced, but a real couple in love, a comic character with a red umbrella, a man in feminine costume-I know that Mother Ginger in Nutcracker is also a man, but he's only on stage for two minutes--lots of ribbons, and a donkey. To be honest, I did not think much of it. I preferred Jacques d'Amboise and Melissa Hayden in Stars and Stripes, since I knew the Sousa march.
It took me a number of years to appreciate Frederick Ashton, and I am glad that I did. His ballets were diametrically opposed to Balanchine's, even though I was surprised to find out later that he had choreographed two ballets for NYCB in the early1950s. But the speed and footwork, so dazzling to City Ballet dancers, was not so noticeable in the Royal Ballet when I first saw Fille. So with practice, and years of repeated viewings, reading books and getting acquainted with Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake (not the Balanchine version), my fondness and appreciation for Fille grew.
For dance historians, Fille could be termed a "reincarnation ballet." It has gone through many changes since its first presentation on July 1, 1789. Choreographed by Jean Dauberval to a musical pastiche score, it was called Le ballet de la paille, ou Il n'est qu 'uns pas du mal bien (The ballet of straw, or There is Only One Step from Bad to Good.) Coppelia does sound better. It then made the rounds, one might say, in different versions choreographed by Jean-Pierre Aumer, Paul Taglioni, Giuseppe Solomini, Jean Lamiral and Charles Didelot. Even Petipa and Ivanov got on board, to be followed by Alexander Gorsky, Assaf Messerer, Igor Moiseyev, Leonid Lavrovsky, Bronislava Nijinska and Dmitri Romanoff. This is a staggering amount of choreographers, and if you want a complete history please read more in books, articles and encyclopedias. Your head will spin.
It wasn't until Frederick Ashton undertook a new creation of the ballet that it finally became an international hit. He referred to it as his "poor man's Pastorale," a lovely reference to Beethoven's symphony where things go from simplicity to thunderstorms and back to normalcy and contentment with the world. He commissioned The Royal Opera House conductor, John Lanchberry, to orchestrate a new score that, while recalling French culture and manners (it did begin as a French ballet after all), is firmly rooted in an English sensibility
The Ashton version has now been acquired by ballet companies around the world. But the ballet might seem something of an anomaly to those brought up on Balanchine octane. If you can put that aside and meet the ballet on its own terms as, what I would call, the very epitome of English romanticism and comedy, you will be justly rewarded. Its depiction of love is one of the most beautiful in ballet. The bucolic setting reinforces the sometimes questionable innocence of the characters, and no matter what the obstacles, true love triumphs in the end.
Ribbons are a motif throughout the ballet. They are used and manipulated in various ways to represent love maturing from the most innocent and playful to the sensuous and life affirming. They're also used to simulate a pony prance or a stream of water. Whatever their many uses in the ballet, they firmly attest to Ashton's craftsmanship, affinity and love for the art he practiced for almost a half century. Fille remains a true testament to his talent and place in England's cultural landscape. No artist could ask for more.
The cast for Fille was outstanding: Steven McRae as Colas, Roberta Marquez as Lise, Philip Mosley as the Widow Simone and Ludovic Ondiviela as Alain. The only question I really had was with Ondiviela. Alain is a character part and requires off-balance steps and gestures that were suited to the part's original creator, Alexander Grant. Ondiviela is too much of a classical dancer to look totally convincing in the part, and, no matter what they do with his makeup, he is too handsome for the part.
During the film's intermission we were graced with a short interview with Dame Monica Mason, who stepped down as the Royal's artistic director last year. Mason said that Fille was one of the first ballets in which she performed at the Royal, 54 years earlier! So, even though a year has passed, let me take this opportunity to thank Dame Monica Mason for her outstanding skills as a ballerina, coach and director. When the Royal was plunged in gloom and distress she took over the reins and brought it back to something very much bordering on its former glory. Best wishes, Dame Monica. I hope you will still be around at the Royal to teach and, more importantly, inspire.
Photo: Tristam Kenton