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How La Fille mal gardée creates pastoral magic through 'Marmite' cartoons

Cartoonist Osbert Lancaster's designs for Frederick Ashton’s bucolic masterpiece have drawn criticism over the years – but they play an important part in the ballet’s larger-than-life charm.

By Danielle Buckley (Former Publishing and Interpretation Intern)

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.

By Danielle Buckley (Former Publishing and Interpretation Intern)

7 October 2016 at 2.00pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Frederick Ashton, cartoon, design, history, La Fille mal gardee, Osbert Lancaster, Production

This article has 16 comments

  1. Valerie Knight responded on 7 October 2016 at 3:57pm Reply

    We are just home in 'bucolic' Dorchester after coming to London to see last night's wonderful performance of 'Fille'. What a fantastic evening! Putting last night's cast list away with my others I realise just how many times we have seen this ballet, not to mention watching it on DVD countless times. Never change a thing about this production!. I smile from the minute of curtain up right to the end. On our row yesterday were a group of 2016's young ladies who giggled all the way through. There are enough gloomy ballets around for those who prefer realism. Please leave ' Fille mal Gardee' as Frederick Ashton intended it.

  2. David responded on 8 October 2016 at 10:56am Reply

    An excellent article Danielle – thank you. But why on earth would anyone even for a moment contemplate changing Fille? It is a perfect blend of music, design, choreography and house style. Its magic lies in the sum of its parts. Any alteration would be an act of vandalism. I was at the Hayward/ Sambé performance on Thursday about which everyone is so euphoric and am looking forward to several more castings in the present run. Fille is a perfect gem and you just can’t improve on perfection! Bar the gates to the vandals I say, pour boiling oil down on their heads and leave it alone!

  3. Mary responded on 10 October 2016 at 10:49am Reply

    The current designs are deliberately of no special time or place, in keeping with the ballet whose special magic is partly a result of its timeless, fairy tale- in the best sense- quality. When the backdrop is revealed as we listen to the overture, we are transported to an idyllic place. They are most beautiful and their loss would be a very sad and unnecessary act of destruction.

  4. Dave Morgan responded on 10 October 2016 at 1:11pm Reply

    to change anything in Fille would be pure vandalism. Please don't!

  5. Bridie Macmahon responded on 10 October 2016 at 1:44pm Reply

    The current designs do indeed conjure up the 'idealized, pastoral context' of the ballet perfectly, and immediately. They are an essential element of the concept of the work and could not be changed without damaging it irrevocably. Fille is a work of brilliance, with a delicate bond between the designs, music, choreography, lighting and performances. Changing the designs would - and should - therefore be unthinkable.

  6. jules jones responded on 10 October 2016 at 1:45pm Reply

    please do not change anything about fille - its fabulous as it is - leave the backdrops - part of the magic!

  7. Julia Matheson responded on 10 October 2016 at 2:25pm Reply

    I agree with all the comments who plead that the designs remain as they are. I only have to think of various diastrous re-designs of Daphnis and Chloe and Cinderella - to name only Ashton's works - to be filled with dread at the thought of what could happen to Fille.

  8. Fiona Dunn responded on 10 October 2016 at 3:10pm Reply

    Please do NOT change anything about Fille, it is utter perfection as it is! Ashton's masterpiece should always be presented and cherished as he created it. Any change would be sacrilege.

  9. Tony Newcombe responded on 10 October 2016 at 4:07pm Reply

    Perfect choreography. Perfect design.
    Perfect musical arrangement. How often does that happen. Please leave the design alone.

    • Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media)) responded on 10 October 2016 at 5:45pm

      Rest assured that there are absolutely no plans to change The Royal Ballet's production of La Fille mal gardée. Danielle is only exploring how Lancaster's designs contribute to the overall feel of the ballet, in the context of the criticism the designs have received in the past. We're delighted to hear that, like us, so many readers are such firm fans!

  10. Nina Battleday responded on 10 October 2016 at 5:42pm Reply

    Haven't seen Fille this time around for financial reasons, but have seen it many times since the original performances with Nerina and Blair. I think it should be .given National Treasure status and any attempt to update the set designs should be regarded as no less than treason! Just one look at the silly cows on the front cloth gets me smiling, and all the designs, for sets and costumes, are a total joy. No changes, please.

  11. Janet McNulty responded on 10 October 2016 at 7:26pm Reply

    I am pleased to see from your response to the comments above that there are no plans to change the designs of this wonderfully complete ballet. The cartoonish designs are an integral part of its charm and make it timeless. It would be a travesty if the current designs were to be changed.

  12. Joan Hopton responded on 10 October 2016 at 11:33pm Reply

    Who are these people who 'criticised the sets of la Fille? Obviously not ballet lovers, or lovers of the idyllic world conjured up by the mere mention of this wonderful ballet. The evocative Osbert Lancaster sets are an integral part of the magic of this ballet and it would be sheer vandalism to even contemplate changing them for anything more 'modern' or 'relevant'. The whole point of La Fille is that despite it's French name Ashton created a very English work of genius. The ballet itself is timeless and owes more to the pastoral idyll created by P.G. Wodehouse than marmite .Marmite is something you either love or hate. I'm sure that after last Thursday's amazing debuts by Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambe in this wonderful ballet no one in the audience came out of the theatre hating it or wanting to change a single thing about it. Why would you change perfection?!

  13. Alastair Macaulay responded on 14 October 2016 at 11:36am Reply

    Please restore the pre-1981 costumes for Lise's eight friends, much gentler in colours than the garish ones seen for 35 years. (Nadia Nerina in 1960 had to fight to stop Osbert Lancaster dressing Lise in unsuitable collude.)

  14. C J MacPherson responded on 14 October 2016 at 4:44pm Reply

    They don't make'em like this anymore.
    If a ballet could be a National Treasure, it is this one. We've all had enough bad news this year so Fille stands out like a ray of sunshine. The cream on the top of this year's run were the debuts of Hayward and Sambe - delightful.

  15. We couldn't imagine Ashton's La Fille mal Gardée without Osbert Lancaster's designs. Funny that anyone would ever find fault with them- from the moment I saw a painted reproduction of the "Cat's Cradle" pas de deux with its long ribbon and Lise's cap and apron, or every time (for the last 25 years) I've seen the backdrop when the music is played, it just feels magical and fun. For what it's worth, whenever I've taken guests to see it, everyone - from young to old, from a complete newcomer to diehard fan- has enjoyed Fille. Not everyone has enjoyed Swan Lake, Nutcracker or even Cinderella, but everyone is entranced by Fille!

    Even though the Bolshoi has the older version of Fille (revised by Grigorovich) in their school repertoire, when it came to mounting it for the main company, they chose Ashton's version, with Lancaster's designs, just like the Australian Ballet and National Ballet of Canada before them. And now American Ballet Theatre and even the Paris Opera Ballet have Ashton's production with Lancaster's designs- Fille has come full circle and returned to its French home!

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