Paris Opera Ballet
1st July 2009
Although Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardee is set in France, it is nevertheless a perfect example of what was once called ‘The English School’, the style developed by the Royal Ballet and perfected by Ashton himself. The problem is that that style of dancing now struggles to survive in London with Ashton’s works neglected by the company to which he dedicated his career, thereby creating the distinct character the RB used to possess, but now chooses to ignore. In 2007 Alexander Grant, Ashton’s most ardent champion, set the work on the Paris Opera Ballet with very happy results and two years on I can report back that by and large the company is still doing Ashton proud.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first; the corps de ballet quite frankly looked sluggish, but they can be excused on this occasion as the heat in the auditorium was stifling and if I felt uncomfortable sitting watching, how much worse it must have been for those having to dance in a city heat wave. The other negative is Widow Simone, danced on this occasion by Michel Denard, very credible as a lovable tyrant who thinks she has her daughter’s best interests at heart, but when her big moment arrives and she puts those clogs on, it’s all a bit of a let down. Denard is the third Simone I’ve seen and none so far have mastered a dance that should by rights be a show stopper. Clog dancing though is a very English occupation, just as being the pantomime dame is, eventually the company will find someone who can get it right but so far I haven’t seen a French Simone totally comfortable in those clogs.
There is a new dancer in the role of Colas this year: Emmanuel Thibault. It is extremely rare to see M. Thibault in a leading role and to the best of my knowledge this is only the second full length role he has been given in Paris. Thibault is the dancer’s dancer, admired by the cognoscenti of Europe and possibly beyond and was once described to me by a leading Russian star as “a genius” – a description with which I concur. His technique isn’t showy; it is pure. His stage personality is less that of a star than a professional who always cares more about the choreography he dances than his impact on the audience. I knew and admired Thibault’s dancing long before I was able to put a name to his face as even in the corps de ballet my attention would always be grabbed by the same extraordinary dancer dancing the same steps as the rest but more perfectly than any of them.
So how did he do as Colas? Very well actually, he seemed to enjoy dancing the role every bit as much as I enjoyed watching him. Colas isn’t an easy role but it is one that can show a dancer off to great advantage so long as he has the personality to win the audience over. This ballet was created around the very individual David Blair, whom I still remember vividly, utilizing his cheerful personality, strong turns and remarkably strong partnering skills. Over the many years I’ve been watching Fille it hasn’t always been the big stars or the technical whizzes that have made the biggest impact; the winners have invariably been those dancers able to sink themselves into the role and transport us to Mother Simone’s farmyard. Thibault does this very well; in appearance he looks much younger than his years and his portrayal of an ardent country boy is near perfect, his dancing was very fine, in particular his final solo which was danced quite beautifully, in the entire ballet only the pirouette with the working leg pumping downwards seems to give him difficulties. The partnering went very smoothly with just the big one-hander in the cornfield scene going wrong, but then no Parisian Colas that I’ve seen so far has got it right.
Mathilde Froustey’s Lise was already familiar to me and was every bit as good as I remembered her from two years ago, she is a very appealing girl, a dancer with a springtime glow about her; fragile and gentle in appearance but with a technique that spans the classical spectrum. The double work looked very good with both dancers physically and temperamentally well matched, but above all they convinced us that they were in love and that is the key to the roles of Lise and Colas. La Fille Mal Gardee is a love story and the two dancers I saw fully appreciated that fact. Froustey had one delicious moment in the scene where her mother bundles her into the bedroom; whereas other Lise’s I’ve seen cling on to the doorframe afraid of Simone’s anger when she discovers Colas was hiding there, Froustey rushes up the stairs and through the door in gleeful anticipation of an uninterrupted opportunity for lovemaking with Colas: very French.
This year’s Alain was Allister Madin who gave a sound traditional reading of the role and Jean-Christophe Guerri was a bad tempered blustering Farmer Thomas. The audience reaction was rather odd as on the one hand they seemed to ration the applause during the performance with not a single clap for the perfectly executed cat’s cradle, always so warmly appreciated in London, but on the other hand applauding lengthily the flawlessly lovely pas de deux at the end before erupting with enthusiasm at the curtain calls bringing the dancers back again and again for a duration of time that the Royal Ballet’s dancers in Ashton heartland would surely envy.