La Fille Mal Gardée premiered in 1789 at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, France, and is therefore one of the oldest works in the modern ballet repertory. It has been kept alive though its many revivals, perhaps the West’s most celebrated being Frederick Ashton’s 1960 version for the Royal Ballet, which is widely considered to contain some of his most masterful choreography. The bar has thus been set high for any subsequent interpretation. Choreographer Marc Ribaud, however, has met the challenge with his appealing 1950s take on the comic ballet, which premiered in 1997 but is now being presented by Queensland Ballet (QB) in a co-production with the West Australian Ballet.
Using the familiar John Lanchbery arrangement of the Ferdinand Hérald score, which beautifully describes much of the comedic action, Ribaud has kept everything that is so beloved in the Ashton version, retaining the ballet’s charm while giving it a slightly modern twist.
The work has a French provincial setting, which moves from farmyard to village square, and in Act 2, to the farmhouse interior, all evocatively captured by the charming designs of Richard Roberts.
The costuming, designed by Lexi De Silva, provides much of the modernity; the men in jeans and shirts, the women in 1950s-styled skirts and shirts, or frocks in soft shades of pink, turquoise and lemon. Into the mix Ribaud humorously throws a couple of 1950s icons – a Vespa and, in a nod to James Dean, a leather jacket clad Colas (Victor Estévez) on a vintage motorbike.
The choreography, while not remarkable, is still fresh after 20 years, and easy on the eye. Musically articulate, with contemporary elements in the mix, for example flexed feet and hands, it also resonates with a little of musical theatre’s jazz style. An oft-repeated motif is second position plie, with arms in wide second and hands flexed.
The multiple pas de deux for Lise (Laura Hidalgo) and Colas provide the choreographic highlights. Broad, sweeping, lyrical movement encapsulates the joy of young love, especially in the second scene pas de deux, which, as in Ashton’s spectacular ribbon Grand Adage, also begins here as a pas de huit.
Hidalgo was delightful as Lise; in turn pert or petulant, her effortless performance was a joy to watch. Estévez, equally impressive as Colas, tossed off his grand allegro with an easy but masculine nonchalance. A pity his loose-fitting jeans did not flatter his form as they might.
The comedy was finely drawn and immaculately timed throughout. The opening chicken dance, here performed crisply by four village lads, was an amusing start, while the Widow Simone’s clog dance, accompanied by the same lads tapping their hearts out, was the show stopper it is meant to be.
Jack Lister was a very sassy Widow Simone, commanding the stage, the orchestra and the audience with a comic delivery that was impishly wicked and impeccably timed. Obviously relishing the role, towards the end he hovered dangerously within a hairsbreadth of parody, but was saved by the curtain.
Camilo Ramos portrayed the daffy charm of the hapless Alain to perfection. His opening sequence was a tour de force of restrained but exquisitely detailed comedy. His exit into the flies ended Act 1 in another comic moment as Alain, caught in a storm, is swept aloft holding his umbrella.
The QB artists delivered both the dance and the comedy with stylish finesse and energy. The ballet is perfectly suited to the size of the company and it will no doubt be a popular addition to its repertoire.
The luxury of having live music cannot be overstated. For this season Camerata, Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nigel Gaynor, filled the bill wonderfully.
– Denise Richardson