There isn't a single moment in this sparkling summer comedy that doesn't brim over with high spirits and sunny joys. La Fille mal gard_e opens at the crack of dawn and ends at twilight, when the entire cast sings themselves off the stage to a harvest-home tune.
In between, choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton celebrates the bucolic happiness of life lived on the land. Haymaking, butter churning and spinning all have a part to play in this delightful story. The first scene takes place in a farmyard at sunrise when the dancing kicks off with a jaunty romp for a cavorting rooster and his four capering hens. The next scene, set in a field at mid-day, is interrupted by a sudden shower followed by a rainbow. Mother Nature is almost as central to this ballet as Lise, the young girl referred to in its title.
Like Les Mis_rables, this sprightly ballet has never found a good English alternative to its original French name. A literal translation of La Fille mal gard_e‹the poorly guarded girl‹may sum up the crux of the plot, but makes it sound dull and uninteresting. And, of course, Ashton's jolly tale is anything but. Premiered in London by the Royal Ballet in 1960, La Fille mal gard_e was an instant hit. It has gone on to become the best-loved among all of Ashton's many creations.
"The story tells itself so well," says the British-born Houston Ballet Principal dancer Phillip Broomhead. "Everybody easily understands what's going on." The clarity of the narrative is just one of the reasons why this is such an ideal introduction to dance for any and all ages.
Lise and her boyfriend Colas are meant for one another. But her mother, the Widow Simone, wants Lise to marry the clutzy son of a wealthy local landowner. The giddy complications that need to be gone through before the ballet reaches its "happily ever after" ending are as entertaining for audiences as they are frustrating to the characters.
The role of the Widow Simone may first appear a bit strange to American audiences. She is always played by a man‹as an English "pantomime dame." Broomhead, who will be dancing the Widow for the first time in Houston's upcoming production, says, "in England it is considered a very prestigious role to play."
Ashton himself was a brilliant comic. In Cinderella, his first full-length ballet (1948), he used the Ugly Sisters as an ideal opportunity to evoke the English tradition of the "pantomime dame." The "dame" is an ingrained part of England's Christmas entertainment festivities; but she is not a drag queen. The "dame" is more a frumpy caricature who serves as a foil to the true femininity of the heroine. Much of the comedy in La Fille mal gard_e stems from Widow Simone, a mini-ogre with a hidden heart of gold.
"This will be my first time as the Widow," Broomhead says, "and I am looking forward to it with great enthusiasm. I've danced in many of Ashton's ballets and can't think of any that I wouldn't want to do again." The moment when her daughter persuades the Widow to don her wooden clogs and dance at the harvest leads to one of the greatest comic displays in all of ballet. The Widow, who is joined by four girls also in clogs, gleefully proves that she's a true showstopper.
There's another real scene-stealer in La Fille mal gard_e, a pony that pulls a little two-wheeled carriage that takes Lise and her mother off to the harvest celebrations. From the outset, Ashton wanted the smallest, whitest pony possible. The Royal Ballet's veteran star, a miniature Shetland named Lisa (after the ballet's heroine), took over when her mother, Seagull, retired. She got to know her role so well that she would patiently wait in the wings until she heard her music cue, at which point nothing could stop her from heading for center stage.
Later, the harvesters imitate the pony and cart, using twirling ribbons to imitate its wheels. Early in the ballet the young lovers also play at horse and driver when they use ribbons to mimic a bit and bridle. The landowner's hapless son has his own best "friend"; it's his red umbrella which he loves to ride as a hobbyhorse.
Wherever you look, there is fun to be found in this delightful confection. Ashton's version has become the most famous, but it was far from the first. La Fille mal gard_e is actually one of the oldest ballets around. It was first performed in France less than two weeks before the fateful storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. That's 103 years before Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker. But there is nothing about this comedy that is dated or old-fashioned. It is timeless. A bit of sheer pleasure to be enjoyed again and again.
An American who has lived in Europe since 1982, Allen Robertson is a frequent contributor to publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He was the dance editor for Time Out London from 1984 until 2008.