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La Fille mal Gardée: Ballet to the music of Ferdinand Hérold and John Lanchbery, performed by dancers from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, together with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis. Birmingham Hippodrome, 2.3.2011 (GR).

Principal Dancers:

Widow: Simone David Morse

Lise: Nao Sakuma

Colas: Iain Mackay

Thomas: Jonathan Payn

Alain Robert: Gravenor

Birmingham Royal Ballet's supremo David Bintley hinted in the programme that the timing of this revival of La Fille mal gardée might coincide with a touch of spring. But the Birmingham weather for the first performance of its brief run on Mar 2nd 2011 was decidedly wintry. What was evident was the bounce in the step of the corps dancers of the BRB and a release of genuine warmth from their performance. It is a whopping 51 years since the Frederick Ashton version of this romcom first hit the floor; its history at the Birmingham Hippodrome is almost as long and judging by the smiling faces and spontaneous laughter from the packed house, it had lost none of its appeal. And it was a real team effort - on stage, behind the scenes and in the pit.

What is it about this ballet that makes it so lovable? Being a family show helps! Then there is its transparent story and collection of enchanting incidents that go to make up the whole. Act I got off to a cracking start. Despite the Frenchness of the named protagonists, the initial frontage design of Osbert Lancaster was quintessentially English and the Sinfonia added to the colours of his landscape. Our escort into the first scene was a flashy cockerel and four chickens - their free range of movement and playful demeanour clearly depicting an era long before any battery-hen concepts. In Widow Simone's farmyard, Lise was dreaming of Colas, the love of her life, pinning up a ribbon on the barn door. This symbol of her love became a delightful thread throughout Ashton's interpretation: noticed by Colas he ties it to his staff (without innuendo) using the proverbial lover's knot; whenever their dance steps drove them apart it served as the most delicate of lassoos to bring them back together, both physically and emotionally; as the pair broke from one of their many amorous clinches, the ribbon magically retained their attachment with a cat's cradle. And as the ribbons multiplied in the following ensemble numbers, so the metaphors continued thick and fast - love was 'reined in', while skipping ropes evoked carefree summer days and as their lips met yet again, the village gang drew a series of kisses across the stage. But Thomas, the prosperous vineyard owner, and farmer Simone had other ideas: a match that would unite their two businesses. That Lise might be persuaded to marry halfwit Alain was of course a non-starter. Enough of such frivolities,; it was time for all to bring in the harvest, and what better way for the good Widow to travel to the fields than by pony and trap? The biggest sigh of the evening from the audience was for the cuddly and well-behaved animal.

More crowing from the chickens heralded the return of pony and passengers; the hay gathering process of Act II could begin. Each member of the BRB corps de ballet was armed with a sickle and his or her sweeping strokes were incorporated into the pulsating choreography, matching the music blow for blow. Cutting hay by hand was exhausting work for the harvesters, but there was of course time for a picnic and the Pas des Moissonneurs and the Flute Dance. The ribbons also returned, this time to simulate a wheel with Lise en pointe as the well-oiled axle. The Pas de trois involving Lise, Colas and Alain was also memorable: with Lise due to marry Alain she was obliged to dance with him, but every time their heads were about to come together, up popped Colas to sandwich his head in-between theirs; the split second timing was perfection. A brief thunderstorm had everyone scurrying for cover and home.

Act III in the farmhouse began with Lise and Mama at the spinning wheel. When Simone dozed off, the watchful Colas saw his chance for a further rendezvous with Lise, but there was an intervening locked stable-type door. Able to open the top half, he leaned in and pulled her up into his arms, her quivering battement indicative of her pleasure. The harvesters brought in the hay bales and celebrated their rewards with a spectacular Morris dance. Left alone, Lise dreamt of married life with Colas. He made a dramatic appearance from within the piles of hay and the couple had their first tiff, on how many offspring there should be. When Simone was heard approaching, Lise whisked Colas upstairs into a bedroom. Suspicious Simone, in true Whitehall farce tradition, locks Lise in the same bedroom. Alain and father Thomas arrived with village notary and clerk to complete the contract. The intended groom was given the key to the bedroom; his hesitant passage up the stairs demonstrated that the village idiot was not macho enough for the delectable Lise. Eventually Simone realised she was beaten and it all ended happily-ever-after with more festivities around the maypole.


Nao Sakuma as Lise and David Morse as Widow Simone
Photo Courtesy of Birmingham Royal Ballet

All the dancers in this BRB production were first-rate. As Lise, it is hard to believe that Nao Sakuma has been with BRB since 1995, yet more than capable of carrying off the innocence of the young farm girl. Her exchanges with her mother were particularly engaging: one minute fragile, the next defiant. Her embarrassment when Colas interrupted her flight of fancy into pregnancy was enchanting. The versatile Iain Mackay was an ideal partner, fully deserving to be united with his love - masterful with his lifts and exuberant during solo display; I thought he was the pick of the dancers. The scurrying walk of David Morse as Widow Simone was surely as fine as many of the previous greats who have graced this role, while his clog dance produced its usual enthusiastic applause. Robert Gravenor also had his moments as Alain, particularly during his stuttering progress up the stairs. The lesser roles were also well cast: Kit Holder was a rampant Cockerel (reminding me of Norman Collier) and his four Chickens - Jenna Carroll, Laura-Jane Gibson, Jade Heusen and Yvette Knight - strutted dutifully behind.

The music for this ballet originates from many sources, but all of them tuneful in John Lanchbery's arrangement. Since it is based upon original versions (predominately Hérold, together with minor excerpts from Peter Hertel such as the Clog Dance) with significant additions of his own, plus borrowings from the operas of Rossini and Donnizetti, the easy-listening music had great variety and above all charm. The Sinfonia under Philip Ellis and leader Robert Gibbs took it all in their stride. The mellowness of their overall tone was particularly appealing and fitting for the occasion. The accompaniment for the sickle ensemble was outstanding.

The old ones are the best!

Geoff Read


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