La Fille mal gardee is a rural rom-com that is easy to watch and easy to like. It was made 50 years ago by Frederick Ashton and in its half century year The Royal Ballet is rightly reviving his clever, sweet, affectionately mocking ballet about the spirited Lise and her mother’s efforts to marry her off to Alain, the son of a rich landowner.
But Lise doesn’t love the nit-witted Alain. She only has eyes for Colas, a much more manly but much less wealthy farmer. This being ballet, all ends well, with Ashton creating some of his best characters and most delicate choreography during the two-hour performance.
There is also humor, a haywain, and wonderful English folk dances that Ashton has magically woven into what was originally a French ballet. He also includes Gaelic and British charm, as well as a harvest festival and May poll dancing within minutes of each other, an illogical mix that lesser choreographers would struggle to combine.
For all its charm and apparent lightness, Fille is not easy to dance, and not all ballerinas are temperamentally suited to its happy heroine. Easily the current best is Marianela Nunez who opened The Royal Ballet’s revival.
Nunez is blessed with a dazzling smile that sets the Opera House alight, as well as the ability to convey pure joy. She is also a deft comedienne, gently mocking the hapless Alain as he ineffectually tries to woo her. With her true love Colas (the appealing Carlos Acosta) she is eager and playful, and their duets together convey a subtle sexiness.
Slightly different interpretations can be seen in the other casts in the current run. Alina Cojocaru is a more innocent Lise, as is Sarah Lamb and Yuhui Choe, three dancers whose extreme slenderness convey a less determined character than Nunez’s emphatic charms. With Roberta Marquez, Lise’s flirtatious temperament is emphasised, while Laura Morera is more the pretty tomboy.
If Lise and Colas are the couple that demonstrate the joys of young love, then her mother and Alain’s father reveal its more mature concerns. Widow Simone loves her daughter but is acutely aware of the advantages of a financially good match. The character is always played by a man, and on opening night Will Tuckett exactly conveyed the Widow’s initial ambition and growing unease as she realises Alain is nowhere near the young man she’d want for her daughter.
As Alain’s father, the first cast Christopher Saunders turns his doting eye away from his son, hoping against hope that he will click with Lise, only to realise that this is not to be. It’s a nice touch that Ashton cast the father not just as a rich landowner, but as a prosperous vineyard owner – hinting that the wine may have addled his paternal senses.