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La Fille mal Gardée

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When Frederick Ashton's 'La Fille mal Gardée' was new, in 1960, Marie Rambert described it as 'the first great English classic'. You might argue that it was actually the fourth or fifth g.E.c., but certainly no other ballet in our history has so instantly established itself, or been greeted with such near-unanimous joy by critics and audience alike.

In its original form, with choreography by Dauberval, 'Fille' had its première in Bordeaux in 1789 - two weeks before the fall of the Bastille. (We saw a reconstruction of this done by the Ballet du Rhin a few years ago - I remember going out of a sense of duty, expecting some dusty museum piece, and finding it completely charming.) It has been revived in a dozen different forms since then, most importantly in Paris in 1828, with a new score by Herold (well, newish - bits of Herold, bits of the original, quite a lot of Rossini), and in St Petersburg in 1885, with choreography by Ivanov. It was this version which Karsavina remembered, and its touching mime scene which she taught to Ashton. Pavlova had a version in her repertory, but by 1960 if was seen as a piece of faded history, and Ashton's decision to recreate it was greeted with surprise and some scepticism.

'Fille' was one of the first ballets about 'real' people, rather than gods or princesses. Its hero and heroine are an ordinary young couple, and its plot is a very simple variation on 'boy meets girl/problems arise and are overcome/boy gets girl'. A love story, in fact. Ashton's version is saved from over-sweetness in by the character of Alain, the heroine's simple-minded, rather reluctant, but extremely rich suitor, whose disappointment can bring a note almost of tragedy to the otherwise happy ending. I have known misguided people who claim to dislike 'Fille' because the story is so simple - and can a ballet featuring a dear little pony really be taken seriously?. They are missing the point: a comedy can be as much of a masterpiece as a tragedy, and Ashton's is perfectly structured and full of the most brilliant choreography. Apart from the famous set pieces such as the clog dance and the 'picnic' pas de deux, 'Fille' is full of typical Ashtonian touches like the clever surprise ending of both acts and the quite unexpected last act pas de deux, quiet and touching, which anyone else would have made technically dazzling and triumphant.

It was in 'Fille' that Ashton worked for the first time with principals famous for their technique, and he made the most of it. In 1960 people thought that the only problem was that no-one else would ever be able to dance it - nearly forty years of performances have happily proved them wrong. Lise (the heroine) in particular has proved to be one of those roles in which no-one is ever really bad. Nadia Nerina, its creator, was the technical whizz of the day, and at least for the first few years she brought much charm and humour to the role - but some of her successors have danced it as well or better, and many have made the character just as adorable. Annette Page, Doreen Wells, Lesley Collier and lots of others have in their turn made the role their own in fact the only ones who've seemed less than happy with the part were (oddly) Antoinette Sibley and more recently Viviana Durante, who at ther debut at least looked rather uncomfortable. David Blair's successors as Colas have not been of quite such a uniformly high standard, but they have included some great interpretations - Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Bujones, Schaufuss and Flindt have all enjoyed themselves, though my own favourites would be Michael Coleman, and, above all, David Wall. Even so, no-one ever picks up the wine bottles in the front-of-curtain scene with Blair's timing and panache.

The 'character' roles of Alain and Lise's mother, Widow Simone have had a more chequered career. Alain, in particular, was so wonderfully done by Alexander Grant in the first cast that everyone since has risked looking like a pale imitation. The best have found their own way of bringing something new to the part. Some excellent Simones have followed Stanley Holden into the clog dance - Ronald Emblen and Brian Shaw in earlier days, and more recently David Bintley, our finest character dancer since Grant.

'Fille' is one of those ballets that sends you home happy, no matter how many times you've seen it, and it is sad that it has become such a rarity of late. It used to be a staple of the RB touring company - who often looked more at home in it than their London colleagues - and there's never been so long a gap between revivals at Covent Garden. Let's hope that the recent successful Scottish Ballet production, and the one promised by the Royal Ballet for next year, will bring as much delight to new audiences as it has to those who've seen it 50 times already, and can't wait for the next one.

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