La Fille mal Gardee, Birmingham Royal Ballet at Bristol Hippodrome

SOME ballets send you out of the theatre almost breathless and tingling with excitement, the combination of music and dancing making you want to join in and share the stage with those involved with the production.

That however was never the intention of Frederick Ashton when he, against some opposition, decided to choreograph an entirely new version of La Fille mal Gardee, one of the oldest known ballets. Ashton, for all the French background (it was first presented in 1789 in Bordeaux), saw this romantic tale as a very English story.

Freely adapting Ferdinand Herold’s score, one of at least six used during its history to accompany this ballet, and  adding Peter Hertel’s Clog Dance, John Lanchbery produced a score which has served to bring Frederick Ashton’s delightful English country setting of this story charmingly to life.  To add the finishing touches to his vision of the story, Ashton persuaded author, stage designer, wit, architectural historian and cartoonist Osbert Lancaster to design the sets. He produced set designs which complimented the director/choreographer’s images ideally.

The question was how well did the Birmingham Royal Ballet use this wonderful inheritance, which can still look fresh and delightful, more than half a century after it was first seen in London. The answer is that they appeared to treat the subject with almost too much respect. The orchestra, under the watchful eye of Barry Wordsworth, played with complete precision, but like the sets, admirably lit by Peter Teigen, that sharp bright edge however was missing.

Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton brought out all the joy and exuberance of youth in their playing of the effervescent Lise and Colas, but at times you felt that they were dancing, unlike their relaxed acting, with the hand break half on and longed for them to throw caution to the wind dancing with fewer inhibitions.

In all fairness it is probably easier to bring more freedom to playing comedy. Rory Mackay, obviously loving leading the Clog Dance, was a delightful over possessive Widow Simone, and James Barton’s Alain matched him with his simple minded suitor to Lise. As for Kit Holder’s Cockerel and his four equally well costumed hens, they outrageously indulged in some scene stealing.

Despite one or two reservations, at the end of this production the audience decamped, as Frederick Ashton had intended them to do, showing no signs of strain and with a gentle smile on their faces.


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