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Birmingham Royal Ballet

"La Fille mal gardée"

by David Mead

March 2, 2011 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham

“There exists in my imagination a life in the country of eternally late Spring, a leafy pastorale of perpetual sunshine and the humming of bees. At some time or another, every artist pays his tribute to nature: my “Fille mal gardée” is my poor man’s Pastoral Symphony.” So once wrote Frederick Ashton.

Right from the start there is no doubt that we are in Ashton’s English idyll. Osbert Lancaster’s front cloth with its sun-drenched green meadows full of grazing cows, a few sheep with a shepherd asleep against a tree, a distant village perfect in every respect, and birds high in the blue sky sets the scene wonderfully. But “Fille” looks at human nature too. It’s about a mother wanting the best for her daughter and a father the best for his son and thinking he can buy it. Look closely and there is a commentary here about class and social issues, but at heart it’s a straightforward story of true love, which of course wins out in the end.

The key to “Fille” is its simplicity and charm. And can there be a more charming Lise than Nao Sakuma? She is an excellent technician and made Ashton’s tricky footwork look easy. In fact, that part of her dancing is so good that it is often taken for granted. She can present a serious exterior sometimes, but it is roles such as this that bring out the best in her and reveal the bright and cheeky personality that lies within. There were many special moments, but the best was undoubtedly when Colas appeared from within the pile of sheaves of straw having secretly watched her imagining getting married and having children. The expression when she realised he had seen the whole thing was an absolute delight.

Iain Mackay’s Colas was a little more grown up and worldly wise than some. He might not have been the innocent ‘boy next door’ that some dancers project, but he was a charmer nonetheless and always engaging. His dance was always alive and full of energy. His jumps were high, exhilarating, yet always solid. Despite the exuberance, he never went too far though, and like Sakuma, always remained true to Ashton’s style and vision.

David Morse was a fine Widow Simone. Is there a better male character dancer in Britain today? The famous clog dance was a little less perky than usual, but Morse played the en travesty role to perfection. Widow Simone he may appear bossy, but Morse made it very clear that just below the surface is a huge soft spot for her sometimes naughty daughter. It is a fine line between acting the role splendidly and turning the whole thing into ghastly pantomime. Morse knows where the line is and never came close to crossing it.

Top marks for Robert Gravenor’s Alain too. He managed to squeeze every ounce of comedy out of the character without resorting to caricature. Importantly though he also presented someone appealingly innocent. His disappointment at losing Lise was so palpable that I doubt there was a single person in the theatre who did not feel sympathy for him.

All the supporting roles were equally well observed, from Kit Holder’s strutting, preening cockerel most definitely in charge of his four chickens; through Jonathan Payn’s slightly bumbling Thomas, whose misguided method of securing Lise’s hand in marriage for his son gets the reward it deserves; right through to the corps who danced with all the gaiety the ballet’s sunny setting demands.

Can there be a warmer, gentler, ballet that tells a story so neatly? Ashton not only put us in his English idyll, he filled it with characters that are warm at heart too. The packed Hippodrome audience lapped it up.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Philip Ellis.

Birmingham Royal Ballet has no further complete performances of “La Fille mal gardée” this season, although excerpts will be danced at Durham, York, Yeovil and Truro in April. The full ballet returns later in the year with performances at Sunderland, Sadler’s Wells and Plymouth in October. See for details.

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