Posted on November 8, 2016
What has happened to La Fille mal gardée? When did a generic pantomime dame replace Widow Simone’s individual character? Why doesn’t Alain offer the spurned engagement ring to the entire audience? Why do the lights dim for the final joyous pas de deux? Why are the sheaves now bound in actual raffia, which makes them look less real rather than more real? Did the Village Notary always convince the Widow to tear up the signed contract and allow Lise to marry Colas? I thought the young couple melted her heart.
What remains of the ballet once its sweet narrative and expressive choreography fade? The night I saw it, Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov never put a foot wrong as the lovers, and every dramatic note of their interpretations rang true. But the men in the ensemble barely finished their double tours, and the women pasted on their smiles and moved as if the day’s harvesting had exhausted them. Alistair Marriott delivered a stock dame whose roguish pinches and flirtatious wiggles you could anticipate without watching. Though I assume the viewers were watching, even the Clog Dance fell flat. And with Paul Kay grinning from start to finish and bouncing like a rubber ball, Alain became neither shy nor foolish nor nervous nor awkward. Instead, he came across as a cheerful, empty-headed young man with a knack for feathery beats.
To top it all, by slowing the music, Barry Wordsworth drained so much energy from the choreography that the dancers couldn’t sustain its momentum. No wonder you could see them take up preparatory positions as they do in class. How could they stretch their leaps and turns to match his tempi?
Do these things matter? Well, artists still argue about Giselle’s intentions: does she mean to commit suicide with the sword or not? Perhaps illusion and characterisation and Alain’s ignored engagement ring mattered to Ashton too. It’s true that choreography evolves all the time, and interpreters invariably bring their own ideas to roles they acquire, but Fille is not The Sleeping Beauty or Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. The BBC broadcast it in 1962, two years after its première, with the original cast members in the leading roles. That recording is now available on DVD, along with several others. Many dancers coached by Ashton are still alive and can still coach the ballet, and the Frederick Ashton Foundation was established in 2011 ”to perpetuate [his] legacy and work.”
Again and again, experienced performers say that dancing Ashton is not like dancing anything else. His ballets demand precision, sudden changes of direction, deep bends of the body, flickering moves of the feet, and that’s just the physical part. A romantic humanist, he was in love with love, and choreographed every aspect of it from friendly affection to sensual passion. He spiked his work with the keenly observed nuances of social behaviour, not only in Fille but in Les Patineurs, Façade, A Month in the Country, The Dream, and the now nearly forgotten A Wedding Bouquet, and his comic characters, Alain and Widow Simone for example, are timeless in their veracity and vulnerability.
For years The Royal Ballet was completely at home with his vocabulary and sensibility. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe the company will be more comfortable, and convincing, in the technical, musical and dramatic challenges of Anastasia and Wayne McGregor’s creations, which follow Fille into the repertory. As the opening piece of the season, it looked like a warm-up act for the main event.
The night I saw it, the audience treated the ballet as a West End musical, waiting patiently through the slow bits and responding largely to the big effects and broadest comedy. In the final moments, as the company swirled around the lovers and out the door, the rhythmic clapping that accompanies standard finales drowned out the ensemble’s singing and the orchestra. Would you call this a jolly end to the evening or a sad one? Beneath the steady beat of the applause, I thought I could hear Ashton spinning in his grave, but I might have been mistaken.
Picture: Artists of The Royal Ballet in La Fille mal gardée.
Photograph: TRISTRAM KENTON, courtesy of the ROYAL OPERA HOUSE.