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'Paris Opera Ballet'

'La Fille mal gardée'

by Elizabeth McPherson

June 22, 2007 -- Palais Garnier, Paris

“La Fille mal gardée” was a joy to experience from start to finish. The humorous choreography was wonderfully embodied by the outstanding cast, and almost continuous laughter and chuckling was heard from the audience. Acting was equally matched by virtuosity on the part of the dancers, as they performed Ashton’s technically challenging steps. All of this was framed by the stunning Palais Garnier.

The plot of “La Fille mal gardée” revolves around a love triangle of Lise (Dorothée Gilbert), Colas (Nicolas Le Riche), and Alain (Simon Valastro). Colas and Lise are in love, however Lise’s mother, Mère Simone (Stéphane Phavorin), opposes their union, promoting instead Lise’s marriage to Alain, the simpleton son of a wealthy landowner (Richard Wilk). Colas is, of course, a virile and handsome young man. “La Fille mal gardée” dates from 1789, however the Paris Opera Ballet performed Frederick Ashton’s choreographic version from 1960 as staged by Alexander Grant who was the original Alain.

In the opening scene of the two act ballet, a group of young men have just woken up and are beginning to start their day in a small French village. A rooster crows and then begins dancing with a group of chickens. The chicken dance requires no small amount of skill, especially considering the full chicken costumes that cover the head. The chickens and rooster often dance in opposition to one another, and return at various moments in the ballet to reprise their dance. In one instance, Colas touches a chicken, and gets strongly reprimanded by the rooster!

Later in Act I, there is an intricate pas de trois between Colas, Lise, and Alain in which Alain thinks he is dancing with Lise alone, but Colas weaves in and out, behind and through, supporting Lise and hiding from Alain. In a particularly funny moment, Alain poses with an arm in a sort of high salute that mirrors Lise’s leg in arabesque.

Ashton uses ribbons as a motif throughout the ballet: Colas and Lise wind each other into and out of a long ribbon; they use the ribbon to enact a cart horse and driver; and they maneuver and wind to make a kind of cat’s cradle figure with the ribbon. This last movement did not come across as natural, but exceedingly forced, unlike the rest of the ballet. In one grandiose “ribbon” moment, several long ribbons are used to create a semblance of a Maypole Dance when the main characters and their friends go out to harvest the fields.

Ashton borrowed from the Lancastrian tradition in devising a clog dance for Mère Simone and a group of women who perform complicated rhythmic patterns with unabashed enthusiasm in bright, yellow clogs, also at the harvesting.

In the last moments of Act I, there is a terrific thunderstorm, and Alain is swooped up in a strong gust, flying on his umbrella like a witch on a broomstick or a child on an airborne hobby horse.

As Act II begins, Lise is being kept in her house by her mother, locked away from Colas. As Mère Simone dozes, Lise tries to pull the key out of her mother’s pocket, but to no avail because Mère Simone keeps waking up. Once she is finally asleep, Lise and Colas have a delightful pas de deux with Lise inside the house and Colas outside leaning through the opening over the door and supporting Lise in inventive ways.

At the end of the ballet, Mère Simone locks Lise in her room, not realizing that Colas is inside. Meanwhile she and the wealthy landowner sign marriage papers/agreements for the marriage of Lise and Alain. When Lise is called from her room, the door opens, and she and Colas are kissing. The Alain/Lise marriage is called off, and Mère Simone finally consents to the union between Colas and Lise. A celebratory dance follows with the full cast weaving in and out amongst each other in a reprise of the Maypole Dance but without the ribbons. All of the cast exits out of the house and out of our view, but Alain returns in a kind of postscript to collect his forgotten, and much beloved, umbrella.

Simon Velastro as Alain embraced the physical comedy of his part whole-heartedly and with great expertise. Although his character came across as child-like and eccentric, Velastro never dissolved into a slapstick variety of humor. Dorothée Gilbert as Lise was a saucy, mischievous youth bent on marrying her true love, but not without concern for her mother. Gilbert danced with such a light-hearted spirit, even through the most difficult sequences, as to leave one with a sense of a girl on the verge of womanhood. And Nicolas Le Riche as Colas was a wonderful match for Lise, loving and single-minded in his pursuit of her. Le Riche mastered the technical aspects of the role with ease, including the famous “bum” lift. These three characters were so well portrayed that it is difficult to separate the dancers from their roles.

A mild drawback in the ballet was that the company incorporated the classical ballet tradition of stopping the action to bow after each solo or pas de deux. Although a mainstay for certain types of ballets for more than a century, this stopping and starting and coming in and out of acknowledging the audience seemed terribly quaint and frankly broke the action of the hilarious, unfolding story.

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