Birmingham Royal Ballet |La Fille mal gardée
Sadlers Wells, London
Thursday, 20th October 2011
The Wayward Daughter (the Fille of the title) with a very strong will; that’s what you have with Nao Sakuma as Lise. This is the oldest ballet still in existance, and these performances by Birmingham Royal Ballet are dedicated to the late Alexander Grant, a character artist like no other.
Choreographed by Frederick Ashton, his love of the pastoral English countryside is everywhere – in the sets, in the sunshine of Colas’ mustard coloured tights, the hay bales and the Clog Dance, which received the loudest cheers of the night with the fabulous Michael O’Hare as Widow Simone. He plays her a smidge tougher than others, and it makes the eventual acceptance of the Widow’s daughter’s romance for a poor famer – Colas – all the more of a journey. In such an English ballet it is strange to note that the main characters all have French names – Alain, Colas, Lise, Widow Simone – but Ashton’s intention was always to create a ballet set in late Spring with endless sunshine and bumble bees. There are enough props already – all of which behaved – without the addition of insects, but the age-old white pony also behaved impeccably. Even the chickens didn’t lose many feathers – lovely dancing from (though you wouldn’t recognise them) – Karla Doorbar, Laura-Jane Gibson, Jade Heusen and Emily Smith, led by Kit Holder as the Cockerel.
I don’t recall other versions of Fille where Widow Simone almost falls off the cart as it pulls away for the harvest celebrations, nor do I recall the rich vineyard owner groping Lise’s mother on the bench – neither of which were great additions but they did draw some laughter from the audience.
You can’t fail to smile watching this ballet with it’s gentle certainty that all will be right by the end, but Ashton has a particular style of dancing and that has to be observed no matter the horsing around. Lise’s friends are delightful, especially Céline Gittens and Laëtitia Lo Sardo, encouraging Lise to skip the farm chores and dance.
The men of Birmingham Royal Ballet are always impressive, and if the height difference between Iain Mackay and Nao Sakuma was noticeable in the awkward high lifts (especially the very famously difficult one at the end of the cornfield scene where both dancers are already exhausted), it wasn’t the problem I was anticipating overall. Sakuma has fast, precise, Ashton feet, no doubt about that, but her port de bras isn’t as fluid and deep as it should be and in the early stages she seemed almost mechanical in her rendition of the steps, only remembering her character once the technical feats were assured. Her Lise is quite serious about being wayward; she has a clear plan and you know it’s only a matter of time before she’ll outwit her mother. She’s not having any nonsense with Alain, the dimwit her mother really wants her to marry. Robert Gravenor has the inate intelligence to know when enough is enough so his portrayal of the hapless but sensitive and innocent Alain never gets out of hand. This isn’t panto.
Harvest time brings a field full of dancers with great musicality, a celebratation of the harvest but also of Lise and Colas, where Mackay shows off his length of line and laid-back approach to great effect before an approaching storm clears the gathering as the thunder and lightening intensify. Only Lise and Colas stand in a ray of sunshine.
Once she’s worn our her mother through dancing, mimed her way through her hopes for the future (husband and babies – leaving her very shame-faced when Colas bursts through the hay bales) and later been discovered with Colas in her bedroom, Lise ensures that Alain gets the message, despite the fact that he is waving about an engagement ring the size of five continents. Their final pas de deux was very finely danced, framed as they were by the entire cast who were filled with infectious enthusiasm for the ballet, and Ferdinand Hérold’s lovely music, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery, played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Robert Gibbs.
The ballet is charming, very family friendly judging by the reactions from the children in the audience tonight, and very rewarding to watch.
Birmingham Royal Ballet are in rep at Sadlers Well until tomorrow – be quick !
Watch Miyako Yoshida, dancing with Birmingham Royal Ballet, as Lise
Photographs © Roy Smiljanic. No unathorized reproduction.