writers on dancing


Special Preview Section

Lincoln Center Festival
Ashton Celebration
July 6-17, 2004

La Fille Bien Élevée

by David Vaughan
copyright © 1999 by David Vaughan
originally published in DanceView, Winter 1999

    It is so rare nowadays that one can say anything good about the way a major ballet company is taking care of its heritage that when a company does the right thing, it should be commended for it. John Percival’s article “What became of Ashton?“ in a recent issue of the British magazine, Dance Now, is only the latest complaint about the neglect of Ashton’s ballets by the Royal Ballet, which of all companies should be guarding that heritage.

Percival points out that almost half of the 100 ballets to be danced by New York City Ballet in its fiftieth anniversary year are by its founder, George Balanchine, and compares this with the sorry record of the Royal Ballet, which will have performed seven of Ashton’s ballets in its 1998-1999 season. Of course, the Royal Ballet carries a smaller repertory anyway, which is one of its problems. Ballets don’t stay in the repertory long enough for the dancers to get used to performing them. Thus, a triple bill of Les Patineurs, Birthday Offering, and Enigma Variations was performed a few times at the new Sadler’s Wells in the fall, and Rhapsody turned up in another mixed bill. There were Christmas revivals of Cinderella and La Fille mal gardée at the unsuitable Royal Festival Hall. In the summer, Ondine will return. Next year, when the Opera House is supposed to reopen, there will be another triple bill, consisting of Les Rendezvous, Symphonic Variations, and Marguerite and Armand. These few swallows don’t quite add up to a summer—or, to change quotations, do much to alleviate the winter of the discontent of Ashton’s admirers. (To be fair, I should add that Fille will be in the repertory for the company’s Far Eastern tour this spring.)

All the same, as I started to say, if they do something right, we should be grateful for it. I was lucky enough to catch the last of the series of performances of La Fille mal gardée in January. I admit that I went with some trepidation. The company had not danced the ballet for six years; a half-dozen dancers were dancing the leading role of Lise, all for the first time. Alastair Macauley had told me that in revivals he had seen elsewhere, there were changes in the choreography.

But the performance, on the whole, was wonderful. Sarah Wildor may not be the technical virtuoso Nadia Nerina, the original Lise, was, but she is musical, which in an Ashton ballet is perhaps even more important. Bruce Sansom couldn’t manage the lift at the end of the pas de deux in Scene 2 where she sits on his hand—but there have been others who were defeated by it. But he and Wildor did make you believe that they were in love, which is what the ballet is about.

One major flaw was Ashley Page’s performance as Widow Simone. Yes, she is irascible and a bit stingy, but Page was too nasty—he missed the underlying warm-heartedness and much of the fun. Perhaps the English tradition of the pantomime dame, from which this character derives, is no longer understood by a younger generation of performers. But Page is an intelligent artist, and I feel sure that if he could be coached by Stanley Holden, the incomparable creator of the role, he would be able to add an important dimension to his characterization.

The triumph of the performance was the Alain of Jonathan Howells who, I take it, was coached by the creator of the role, Alexander Grant (who owns the rights to the ballet and was present at the performance). Too often Alain is merely silly, and there is a danger that the audience’s laughter at his expense may become cruel. Ashton cannot have meant this to happen; he really loved all the people in the ballet and made sure that even Alain is made happy in the end when he comes back to retrieve his beloved red umbrella. But as soon as Howells came on, one knew that the part was in the right hands; however daft this Alain might be, he was a real person. Howells danced the role better than anyone I have ever seen since Grant, but also, like any good actor, he created the world in which he lived.

What a masterpiece this ballet is! Only a genius like Ashton could have made something so entirely fresh and new out of the bits and pieces of the old ballet that Karsavina had given to him, or that he had picked out of the old libretto. I have said that the ballet is about two young people in love, but the friend I was with, seeing it for the first time, said that it is also about Ashton’s own love of dancing, of the ballet vocabulary that he so enriched at (literally) every step of the way. So far from being lost when called upon to dance in a style that has become somewhat unfamiliar to them, every member of the corps de ballet seemed to take pleasure in the opportunities it offered them. I might add that there was a bonus in the presence in the orchestra pit of John Lanchbery, who collaborated with Ashton on the concoction of the score and whose conducting made it sound like something much more than a pastiche of old tunes and quotations from various composers.

Needless to say, the audience adored the performance. They always do; whenever I see an Ashton ballet, I wonder why the directors of ballet companies don’t realize that his ballets are not only works of genius, but crowd-pleasers, too. I’m told that there was one English critic who condemned the ballet for its lack of political correctness. All I can say is that such a person deserves to spend the rest of her life watching the works of William Forsythe.
Volume 2, Ashton Preview Section
July 1, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by David Vaughan
reprinted from DanceView, Winter 1999


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