Ashton's Gentle Essay on Young Love
Fille Mal Gardée"
by Dale Brauner
In the aftermath of a major winter storm that had blanketed the northeast, the Pennsylvania Ballet's new production of Sir Frederick Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardee" was all the more welcome. The company gave us springtime, wrapped in pale pink ribbons, for its third program this season.
How amazing it felt to settle into the baroque-styled theater and feast one’s eyes on this ballet. The stage was in bloom; awash in colorful scenery and costumes (borrowed from the National Ballet of Canada) and a collection of dancing chickens that transported the audience to the English countryside of Ashton’s imagination.
“La Fille Mal Gardée” (or “The Wayward Daughter”) was originally choreographed in 1789 by Jean Dauberval. The ballet told the story of Lise, whose mother, the Widow Simone, wished her daughter to marry Alain, the simpleminded son of a prosperous vineyard owner. However, Lise was in love with the handsome young farmer Colas, and the ballet follows the pair as they thwart the Widow’s scheme and end up together.
In 1960, Ashton, after hearing about the older work from the famed ballerina Tamara Karsavina, moved the setting out of France and into the English countryside of the 19th century. He entrusted designer Osbert Lancaster to take care of the sets and costumes and John Lanchberry, principal conductor of the Royal Ballet, to put together a score from music by Ferdinand Herold. What emerged is known as one of Ashton’s most gentle essays on young love.
The Pennsylvania Ballet is known for its Balanchine style, but the dancers adapted to the concept of what is required to dance Ashton well enough. The narrative is told almost entirely in dance terms and the structure is so finely crafted that it withstood villagers whose waists did not bend like blades of wheat in the wind.
But the company was willing and the timing, so important in comedy, was exact. What Pennsylvania Ballet does have are character dancers on its roster. Widow Simone (always played by a man) and Alain can seem cartoonish in some productions but David Krensing and Philip Colucci, respectively, treaded a fine line between humor and believability. Colucci, as he showed earlier in the season as the Hoofer in George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” has talent in creating a character through his dancing. His Alain was not mean-spirited or obnoxious, just poorly socialized.
Krensing was a stern mother who had her eye on the prize. Occasionally she was sidetracked by Lise's diversionary tactics, like when she is convinced to join in a clog dance with some of her daughter's friends. Actually, she can't wait to kick up her heels and throw back her head. Again, the pratfalls were so well integrated with the dance elements that any wobbles the Widow Simone had in her clogs looked like over exuberance rather than buffoonery.
Arantxa Ochoa and Zachary Hench were the first cast lovers in a production, staged by Alexander Grant (the original Alain) and Emilio Martins, that featured just two lead casts for the two-week run due to injury and illness.
Ochoa is an elegant dancer who excels in Balanchine’s neoclassical works and the company’s dramatic ballets, like “Firebird.” Some of the more girlish or coquettish moments seemed forced, but Ochoa came into her own during the Act II mime sequence (which Karsavina had taught to Ashton) in which Lise daydreams about married life. Although some of her dancing appeared strained, Ochoa still charmed. She and Hench navigated through the many sequences in which the lovers tie themselves into designs with pink ribbons with aplomb.
Colas proved to be the perfect role for Hench, who was able to show off his terrific ballon. He appeared down-home enough to fit in with the locals but shone just a bit brighter than the others as a hero must.
This ballet does not provide too many opportunities for the company’s many excellent women to take center stage but it did allow a few of the men in the corps de ballet to earn some notice. Matthew Neenan was a fine Cockerel, while Jamar Goodman (as one of Colas’ friends) caught the eye with his perfect double tours and Andre Vytoptov was excellent in the small but important role of the flute player.
These winters get longer and longer but we’ll always have Ashton’s bucolic ballet about country lovers to keep us warm.