La Fille Mal Gardée: ROH Live

For those of you who don’t know, I moved house two weeks ago and reviewing has had to take a backseat amongst all the unpacking, cleaning, shopping etc. I also haven’t had internet access in all that time (I know, I know) so working on the blog has been a tad difficult. But I’m now back in the saddle and I hope the following posts make up for my absence.

There was no way I was ever, ever going to miss La Fille Mal Gardée, The Royal Ballet’s last live cinema relay of the season. Even if it was being screened the day after I moved house. The combination of Frederick Ashton’s choreography, Ferdinand Hérold’s joyous music and Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in the title roles was too good to resist.

The story of La Fille Mal Gardée is basically Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. The wayward girl of the title is Lise, a beautiful, spirited farmer’s daughter in love with the handsome, swaggering Colas. Unfortunately, Lise’s widowed mother Simone would rather see her daughter matched with Alain, the son of a rich landowner. There’s a harvest, a sudden storm, some dallying round a maypole and several games of hide and seek (no, not literally), but eventually Lise and Colas openly declare their love and Simone gives them her blessing. Two things really set this ballet apart from the rest of the classical repertoire: first, its comic tone. Is there another ballet that has dancers in giant chicken suits, or where the principal ballerina gets put across her mother’s knee for a smack? Then there’s all the props – ribbons, hay bales, maypoles, spinning wheels – all of which add to Fille‘s quintessential Englishness and present the dancers with an extra challenge.

Not that you’d know it from watching Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae though. Osipova is a fleet-footed, infectiously joyous Lise – I had had doubts about how well she could embody the character, but she proved me wrong. (She’s not quite up there with Marianela Nunez though.) Steven McRae is as charming, handsome and athletic as ever – how anyone can look so good in Colas’ hideous floral waistcoats and yellow trousers is beyond me – and puts in a great comic turn as well. The moment when Colas springs out of hiding in Lise’s house, revealing that he has eavesdropped on her daydreaming about marriage and children, is both priceless and sweet – Lise puts a handkerchief over her head to hide her embarrassment, which he then uses to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. The Act II pas de deux is brilliant, with its lightning-quick coda and clever use of ribbons to turn an en pointe Lise as if she were a maypole. But it’s the final ‘wedding’ dance in Act III that really makes my heart skip a beat – the tender, loving adagio is an exquisite marriage of Ashton’s choreography and the dancers’ compatibility with it and each other. Overall, the Osipova-McRae partnership is dynamite and I really hope that the Royal Ballet will pair them up more next season. (I will try to stop gushing now).

Philip Mosley is an entertainingly pantomime dame-like Simone, with his/her iconic clog dance a highlight. Paul Kay manages to be both endearing and irritating as Alain, bouncing about the stage like a rubber puppy and successfully defying all his natural dancer’s instincts to perform Alain’s “special” steps. Speaking of endearing things, I can’t go any further without mentioning Peregrine, the miniature pony who appears pulling Lise and Simone’s cart at the end of Act I. He has been performing this role dutifully for years, breaking hearts along the way (including mine – why can’t more ballets call for Shetland Ponies??) but never received much recognition. So this year, a Twitter campaign under #PeregrinesBouquet resulted in him being presented with a basket of fruit, veg and hay by Darcey Bussell in the interval as part of the live broadcast! It was well-deserved, even if he did nearly bring down the backdrop with his cart at one stage.

The interval film for this screening is a fascinating conversation between Darcey Bussell and Lesley Collier, a former Lise. (A side note: these interviews are always over tea and cake.The ROH are blatantly using them to advertise their afternoon teas.) In the interview, Collier remarks how difficult it is to throw a ribbon properly – to have it fly out in a graceful arc instead of dropping straight to the floor. This is Fille in a nutshell – how to make something demanding look pretty, light and effortless. Judging from this latest production, I’d say the Royal Ballet have it down to a fine art.

Sadly, Fille is the last ROH Live event of this season. But happily for non-London dwellers like me, next season there will be six screenings of Royal Ballet productions, including mixed programmes (for the first time) and a brand new production of Frankenstein. It all kicks off with Romeo and Juliet in September, which feels so far away – but at the same time I am so grateful and excited that ROH Live will be bringing the Royal Ballet right to my door. Well, sort of.

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