fille top 18

La Fille Mal Gardée

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1960 version of this French ballet which was first staged in 1789 has become a modern classic, an international favourite high up the repertoire of companies across the globe.

It mixes classic ballet with fun, comedy dances and the nearest you will get to a pantomime dame in ballet – and for those who think ballet is all tutus and tights, you even get a Lancashire clog dancing number.

The story is simple Widow Simone is a rich farmer – in another show her name might be Twankey – lives with her daughter Lisa, who in turn is in love with a young, handsome farmer Colas. Ahh, you might say, except the wealthy widow wants Lisa to marry Alain, son of well-heeled vineyard owner Thomas, and, sadly, Alain is not even bright enough to make the short list for the job of village idiot.

So, Lisa spends her time trying to get away to see Colas, Widow Simone does all she can to stop her and Thomas keeps wheeling his intellectually challenged son to Simone’s farm to woo Lisa – when he is not wooing his umbrella that is, which is a fetish yet to make it to Wikipedia.

We all know it will turn out all right in the end, the fun part is how we get there, with transport, incidentally, provided by Peregrine the pony with his cart. Peregrine, with his penchant backstage for Polo mints, is an old hand, or should that be hoof at La Fille, going back longer than many of the cast in what is a family tradition – I am reliably informed he is a direct descendant of the pony that trod the boards in Ashton’s original - and, as always, Peregrine never put a hoof wrong


Peregrine pulling Lisa and Widow Simone in an earlier production

Momoko Hirata is a delightful Lisa, full of fun with some lovely comic touches, and a beautiful, classical style of dancing, precise, dainty and always elegant, an elegance matched by Mathias Dingman as Colas, the young farmer. He has the easy, effortless style that sets principal dancers apart, producing leaps that seem that bit higher and last that fraction longer and all as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

He dances the part with a twinkle of fun in his eye that helps the story along. Ashton’s choreography includes a Pas de ruban which involves some intricate and precise dancing to create a geometric pattern with a long pink ribbon, with an even more complex affair with eight dancers brought in later.

Keeping them apart as Widow Simone is Michael O’Hare, BRB’s senior ballet master and a former Principal, who dances the part with an eye on every laugh. It is always a bloke in a dress, never drag, more musical hall and panto than ballet, based by Ashton on turn-of-the-century comic Dan Leno, with, one suspects, a bit of Old Mother Riley, more contemporaneous than Leno, thrown in.

As for the clog dance, Ashton took the composer, John Lanchbery, to a performance by Lancashire clog dancers to get a taste of what he wanted. Lanchbury wrote new music for the ballet based on Ferdinand Hérold’s 1828 score, incorporating some elements from two other versions of the ballet, going back to 1789. The result is a piece of musical and dance invention which helps set Ashton’s works apart.

Jonathan Payn is a nicely pompous Thomas trying to offload his idiot son while James Barton is just wonderful as Alain.

The choreography for the part is difficult to say the least. The dancing is stilted, a little awkward, and never looks quite right, and to manage that successfully takes a great deal of skill ad ability.


Vineyard owner Thomas with his intellectually challenged (he lost) son Alain . . . and that umbrella

Its an odd role. Barton makes Alain very funny, even flying off, literally, in a thunderstorm. but at the end, when true love sees through and the French pastoral scene is complete, you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for old Alain. He has been forced into a courtship, dragged along to the village Notary (Rory Mackay) to be married and with ring in hand finds himself dumped at the altar, or at least in Widow Simone’s cavernous kitchen. All that’s left for him is his umbrella.

With Kit Holder’s cockerel and Rosanna Ely, Beatrice Parma, Rachele Pizzillo and Lynsey Sutherland clucking along as chickens, a village full of peasant girls and farm workers, the bucolic scene is complete, all set in Osbert Lancaster’s cartoony designs.

As always, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under Paul Murphy, bring the music to life in what is the most light hearted, funniest and certainly most feel-good ballet on the circuit.

Ashton was a colossus, changing the way people thought of ballet, and this is one of his few full length ballets. It looks simple but that hides some complex choreography beautifully interpreted and preserved by BRB.

If you have never seen a ballet then this is a good place to start. There are no swans, fairies, mythical characters or the like, just an everyday story of country folk, as they say on The Archers, full of fun and even laughter and easy to follow – so you can just sit and enjoy without having to think too much.    

Don’t just take my word for it though. Dance legend Mark Morris talking of Ashton said: “The Dream, Symphonic Variations, Cinderella, La Fille mal gardée: all unimprovable. Perfect, with great strength and a quivering fragility." Can't say it better than that..

To 29-09-18

Roger Clarke


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