The latest venture for ballet in cinema at the SIFFFilmCenter was Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, as performed by The Royal Ballet. Although the July 23, 2012 screening was previously recorded from a live broadcast back in May, the delightful charm of Ashton’s choreography is far from lost, and absolutely worth repeated viewings at any given opportunity. Although San Francisco Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre perform a few of Ashton’s shorter pieces on occasion, the dearth of his works on the West Coast is tragic, with his narrative ballets—especially the full-length variety—being virtually unheard of (though San Francisco did, at one time, have La Fille in their repertory). It came as no surprise that even a small capacity theater was less than half full, as Ashton is not a particularly known entity in Seattle; however, it was disappointing nonetheless.
La Fille is one of Ashton’s finest masterpieces, a comedic ballet that is easy on the eyes and generous to the soul. Inspired by the idyllic English countryside, Ashton wove clogging, a maypole, and even dancing chickens with pearls of intricate classical choreography throughout. As for Ashton’s style, the precise musicality and character of movement to the score by Ferdinand Hérold is always immediately apparent—each step isn’t merely sequenced to fill the music or translated through the body, but it also expresses something about the dancer executing it, whether performed by the corps de ballet or a dancer in a leading role. This amalgamation of elements is what makes Ashton’s gift for storytelling so marvelous, such that there are no dull moments in La Fille.
Principal dancers Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae performed the lead roles of the lovers Lise and Colas, in a partnership with an irresistible chemistry. With exquisitely arched feet and a softness of line, Marquez’s Lise maintained an airy quality that highlighted her playfulness, while McRae has a jump that seemed to strike like lightning, coming out of nowhere and slicing through the air with unbelievable vigor. Proportionally matched with steady partnering, Marquez and McRae’s pas de deux were polished and ambrosial, particularly in the notorious “ribbon pas de deux” in which the lovers seemingly entangle themselves with a pink ribbon only to reveal their game of cat’s cradle. With the ribbon serving as a motif throughout, Ashton proves his cleverness elsewhere in the maypole dance and in an ensemble divertissement that has several dancers using the lines created by the ribbons to create geometric patterns that complement the shapes made by their bodies.
Ludovic Ondiviela as Alain and Philip Mosely as Widow Simone in La Fille Mal Gardee
Ludovic Ondiviela danced the role of Alain, the awkward young man Lise’s mother, the widow Simone (Philip Mosely), betroths her to. In the characters of Alain and Simone, another facet of Ashton’s genius emerges not only in the humor provided by both, but also in the astonishing manipulation of the classical vocabulary for Alain, and in the clog dance for Simone, which has taken on a life of its own as one of the iconic moments in La Fille. Ondiviela was silly but lovable, a perfect blend of naïve and inelegant, while Mosely gave the widow Simone panache and an appropriately fussy embellishment.
Though La Fille mal gardée is one of Ashton’s most popular ballets, it is, unfortunately, not likely to be seen in live performance in Seattleanytime soon. However, Ashton’s brilliance enabled him to create a diversity of works that would find any classical ballet company adept to perform something of his, and it’s worth mentioning that noted Ashton scholar David Vaughan once wrote that Pacific Northwest Ballet could do well with an abstract work like Scènes de Ballet (to music by Igor Stravinsky) or Rhapsody (to music by Sergei Rachmaninoff). It is with great hope that Vaughan’s suggestion can someday become a reality. Although the SIFF presentation reached but a small audience, perhaps the seeds of interest have been sown, and a taste for Ashton’s unerring musicality and charm will grow.