20 April 2015 at 11.33am | 1 Comment
On paper, Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée could come across as the most ordinary full-length work in The Royal Ballet’s repertory. It contains no myth, magic or moonlight. It does not concern itself with the actions of noble, exotic or glamorous families. Although the couple’s caresses are mildly illicit, there is not so much as a flicker of infidelity. And every character makes it to the end not only very much alive, but even more serenely happy than they were at the start – hardly high drama, it would seem.
But how misleading ‘paper’ can be – for there is, in fact, nothing remotely ordinary about Ashton’s Fille. Set to John Lanchbery’s effervescent reworking of Ferdinand Herold’s 1828 score, this giddily optimistic romantic comedy is as close to perfection as it is possible to be. It was an instant triumph on its creation in 1960, and, more than fifty years on, continues to inspire a unique and universal affection.
No ballet is more infectiously in thrall to the glow of young love – and neither is any ballet funnier. A whirl of dancing chickens, grouchy old guardians and halfwit suitors, it is rivalled in comic terms only by Jerome Robbins’s sublime piano-recital-gone-haywire The Concert.
Fille is also, in many ways, The Royal Ballet’s most emphatically and unmistakably English work, and not just for its Constable-like mood or Ashton’s affectionate appropriation of various national folk-dances. Fille’s ‘Englishness’ in fact runs deeper than this, as it is one of the supreme examples of the so-called English style, of which The Royal Ballet is the chief custodian and proponent.
Over at New York City Ballet, among Manhattan’s gleaming skyscrapers, Ashton’s similarly brilliant contemporary George Balanchine was creating a grand, athletically bracing form of neo-classicism that wore its newness on its sleeve and favoured tall, long-limbed dancers. Ashton, too, was essentially neo-classical, taking a rigorously academic, classical technique and weaving into it all manner of choreographic novelty – but the two masters’ styles are very different.
The novel elements in Ashton are arguably subtler and less obviously ‘modern’ than those in Balanchine, and technique in his work is almost invariably a means to heightened emotional expression rather than an aesthetic end in itself. Moreover, where Balanchine focusses on the leg – and the Russians, on ‘carriage’ – Ashton places a special emphasis on épaulement (that delightful and distinctly feminine angling of the head and shoulders) and intricate footwork, the latter making his work best suited to less lofty dancers.
Fille marked something of a fresh departure for its creator, in being the first major work that he conceived for a ballerina other than Margot Fonteyn. Partnered by David Blair, a full-blooded interpreter and solid technician, the virtuoso South African Nadia Nerina allowed Ashton to bolster Fille’s pas de deux with an unprecedented, almost Bolshoi-esque athleticism. Nonetheless, Fille leaves you not with the impression of having been pummelled by technical grandstanding but, rather, of having spent a rapturous summer’s afternoon, in ebullient company, in a sun-dappled Suffolk meadow.
Certainly, Ashton would go on to create other works that are vital to The Royal Ballet’s repertory – in particular The Two Pigeons, Marguerite and Armand, The Dream, his two Monotones and A Month in the Country. And it’s true that by 1960, the dark expressionism of Kenneth MacMillan was already waiting in the wings. But it is Ashton’s style that continues to distinguish and define the way The Royal Ballet dances. And La Fille mal gardée – as a romance, as a comedy, and as a blissful evocation of rustic England – remains in a league of its own.
This is an extract from Mark Monahan’s article ‘Unmistakably English’ in The Royal Ballet's programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.
La Fille mal gardée runs from 27 September–22 October 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is generously supported by Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, the Paul Ferguson Memorial Fund, Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Celia Blakey and Marina Hobson OBE and Peter Lloyd.