An archive from 1962, recorded by the BBC with the Royal Ballet of London and the star dancer Nadia Nerina.
La Fille mal gardée (literal translation: The Badly Guarded Girl), was presented at its 1789 Bordeaux premiere as Le Ballet de la paille, ou Il n’est qu’un pas du mal au bien (The Ballet of Straw, or There is Only One Step from Bad to Good). Eighteenth-century titles did tend towards verbosity, but in this case one couldn’t guess from the title that this ballet told a simple story about young lovers whose betrothal was thwarted by the girl’s meddlesome mother who had another candidate in mind.
Jean Dauberval has been credited with the original choreography to a score fashioned from a pastiche of popular songs and airs, including music by Joseph Haydn. Just two years later, Dauberval mounted the work, now re-titled La Fille mal gardée, for London’s Ballet of the King’s Pantheon Theatre. Other productions followed in Venice, Naples, Marseille and Lyon.
La Fille mal gardée found its most welcome home in Russia with a string of successful productions beginning in 1800 in Moscow with a staging by Giuseppe Solomoni using the original 1789 pastiche music. The St Petersburg premiere took place some years later in 1818 produced by Charles Didelot, a student of Dauberval. In 1845 Bolshoi Theatre audiences were first introduced to a version of the ballet set to the music of Ferdinand Hérold, a score once presumed lost but rediscovered by ballet historian Ivor Guest and used as a basis for the Royal Ballet 1960 production. Subsequent settings of the ballet by Petipa and Ivanov for St Petersburg (1885) and Aleksandr Gorsky for Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet (1901) were particularly well received.
Though various productions of La Fille mal gardée were seen in the West, it wasn’t until 1940 that American audiences were introduced to the work in a version staged by Bronislava Nijinska for American Ballet Theatre, and based on the Petipa/Ivanov/Gorsky choreography. Companies large and small in the Americas and Canada now regularly feature revivals of the ballet in their repertoire.
Of all productions of this venerable work, that devised by Frederick Ashton for London’s Royal Ballet is considered definitive. La Fille mal gardée is a comedy with broad strokes for the travesti role of the Widow Simone and the bungling Alain; bittersweet humour for the courtship of Lise and Colas. Ashton neatly balanced the comedic aspects of the ballet with sections of choreographic genius. The pas de deux for Lise and Colas are among his most inspired creations, while the "Dance of the Chickens" in the opening scene and the first-act "Clog Dance" for the Widow Simone are simply hilarious.
Ashton was not operating in a creative vacuum. There was enough extant information about the earlier productions of Fille to give him a foundation for his production. He also had the assistance of Tamara Karsavina, whose teacher Pavel Gerdt partnered ballerinas who danced the role of Lise in productions as far back as the late nineteenth century.
The present score for the ballet is an amalgam of the Hérold original, new music composed by the Royal Opera House conductor John Lanchbery, parts of the pastiche music from the original production and, for the "Clog Dance," music by Peter Ludwig Hertel used in versions of the ballet from 1864 onwards. Though the score might lack homogeneity, it is more than serviceable, supporting Ashton’s whimsical choreography stylishly.
The story of La Fille mal gardée is as simple as its bucolic setting. Lise and Colas are in love and wish to marry. Lise’s mother, the Widow Simone, has other plans. She has arranged a marriage contract between Lise and Alain, the dim-witted but wealthy son of a landowner, Thomas. Despite Widow Simone’s attempts to keep Lise and Colas apart, they manage to steal time together. On the day of the marriage of Lise and Alain, Lise has hidden Colas in her room. When the wedding party arrives, Lise is sent up to her room to put on her wedding dress. When Alain goes to her room to fetch her for the wedding ceremony, she appears in bridal attire accompanied by Colas. Furious, Thomas tears up the wedding contract. Lise and Colas beg Widow Simone to bless their union and she relents. Joy and happiness abound.
Ashton’s Fille had its first performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 28 January 1960. The cast included Nadia Nerina as Lise, David Blair as Colas, Stanley Holden as Widow Simone, Alexander Grant as Alain and Leslie Edwards as Thomas. Given the ballet’s current status, one would have expected the first-night reviews to be ecstatic. Though the evening was a success by any standards, there were some caveats but they quickly dissipated in subsequent performances. Ultimately, Ashton’s creation became one of the most beloved works in the repertoire, staged by dozens of companies around the world and performed by some of the greatest dancers of their time. The cast of the premiere was reassembled for a BBC taping two years later, the source for this release. It would be difficult to imagine a more superbly integrated performance. Nerina and Blair are technically and dramatically perfect in their roles. Stanley Holden’s drag Widow Simone is a hoot with his "Clog Dance" a triumph of gracelessness, while Alexander Grant’s Alain and Leslie Edwards’s Thomas are played with shrewd restraint.
Ashton’s fondness for his captivating ballet was expressed in the following note: 'There exists in my imagination a life in the country of eternally late spring, a leafy pastorale of perpetual sunshine and the humming of bees – the suspended stillness of a Constable landscape of my beloved Suffolk, luminous and calm.' Calm is in short supply in this often boisterous comedy but sunshine glows everywhere in Ashton’s bright, radiant masterpiece.
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