7 October 2016 at 2.00pm | 16 Comments
Frederick Ashton’s charming 1960 ballet La Fille mal gardée is a firm favourite with both audiences and with the dancers of The Royal Ballet, thanks in part to its pastoral charm. Sylvan costumes and a rustic backdrop transport us to a distant past: we leave behind the busy streets of London and become immersed in the life of a small village with its own microcosmic problems of love, money and parents. But elements of the ballet are very much of the 1960s – particularly the set designs by cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, which tend to prompt something of a Marmite reaction among ballet fans (Ashton scholar David Vaughan has even dismissed them as ‘hitting the wrong note’). But what role do those designs play in the ballet’s pastoral magic, in its deliberately fairytale feel?
Ashton’s love of nature infuses the whole ballet, which features a maypole dance, a flurry of dainty chickens, and the famous clog dance. This idealized, blissful world is the backdrop to a relatively down-to-earth love story, its protagonists beautifully realized, real people. Lise loves Colas, but her ambitious mother Widow Simone wants her to marry the wealthy Alain. The Simone-crossed lovers eventually win her round and bring the ballet to a refreshingly realistic happy ending. Their story blurs the boundaries between an idyllic world of light-hearted fantasy and a reality of romantic tangles and complications: it transcends the boundary between the real and fantastic, mystifying the division between a blissful fairytale and the world as we know it.
La Fille mal gardée has elements of charming nostalgia, but it also estranges the ordinary – Ashton injects vibrant colour into the everyday events of village life (take the clog dance, where a traditional Lancashire folk dance meets the colourful dame Simone). The same could be said for Lancaster’s designs. He was a cartoonist for the Daily Express whose work was considered to be distinctly English, providing a witty commentary on society through the cartoon mouthpiece Maud, the Countess of Littlehampton. Lancaster's surrealist and stylized designs for Fille amplify the story’s pantomime quality, and the exaggerated burlesque of its comedy – but the backdrops of fields that roll into the distance, bundles of hay, dreamy skies and village cottages provide the idealized, pastoral context that the story needs.
Nevertheless, Lancaster’s set design has been criticized for its inability to locate the ballet in any particular time or place – except, that is, of a 1960s London view of idyllic country life. Could the designs be changed? It wouldn’t be the first time a ballet’s choreography has been separated from its original designs. Could we take inspiration from the wayward Lise and create a daring new interpretation of Fille? Do we need to broaden our minds, as Simone eventually does, and accept something new? Well, whatever Lancaster’s critics might prefer, it’s unlikely that any change will come soon: the ballet’s enduring popularity suggests Lancaster’s designs help to immerse us in a world that cannot help but make us smile, completing Ashton’s masterpiece, and creating the perfect backdrop for this enchanting world.
La Fille mal gardée runs until 22 October 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from the Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.