La Fille Mal Gardee

Frederick Ashton with music by Ferdinand Hérold adapted by John Lanchbery
Birmingham Royal Ballet
The Lowry, Salford
to

The nights are drawing in and mornings getting colder but at The Lowry a bright and cheerful version of La Fille Mal Gardee (The Wayward Daughter) keeps summer going for a while longer.

La Fille Mal Gardee is a simple love story that avoids the grand themes and mystical settings often associated with ballet. In a country village, the wilful and headstrong Lise (Miki Mizutani) is in love with the young farmer Colas (Lachlan Monaghan) but her mother, the widow Simone (Rory Mackay), plans to marry her off to Alain (Kit Holder), the oafish son of a wealthy landowner.

La Fille Mal Gardee is the oldest ballet still in existence and has its origins in Europe but Frederick Ashton’s version is defiantly British. Many of the dances have aspects that reflect English country life: maypoles, Morris dancing and clog dancing. Just as significant are the features that do not arise from the dancing; act II ends with a summer’s day turning into an unexpected downpour and Rory Mackay plays the widow Simone as a full-on pantomime dame.

John Lanchbery’s adaptation of Ferdinand Hérold’s music uses the score as a means of commenting upon the action in the ballet. Comic moments are emphasised by sound effects; a deep bassoon underlies the buffoonish antics of Kit Holder’s hapless Alain. But then the emphasis throughout is on keeping the mood light: the first two acts open with a group of clucking hens and a cocky cockerel in decidedly down-market costumes by Osbert Lancaster. This is, however, a quality production; it is hard to resist the warm atmosphere created by the cast in simple cheerful costumes or the surprise entrance of a miniature pony pulling a carriage.

Miki Mizutani is a superb heroine capturing the youth and vitality of Lise and her affectionate if strained relationship with her mother. There is an air of innocence about Mizutani suggesting Lise is mischievous rather than really wayward. Mizutani and Lachlan Monaghan keep the relationship between the lovers chaste rather than pursuing grand passion while Rory Mackay’s formidable widow and Kit Holder’s gormless suitor come close to stealing the show.

Frederick Ashton’s choreography harks back to a period when ballet did not rely on dance alone to tell the story but also featured mime-like gestures. There is a stunning variety of styles on display, especially in the second act. As well as the show-stopping clog dance and some superb duets between Mizutani and Monaghan, the ensemble work of the company is breathtaking. A stand-out is Miki Mizutani on tip-toe serving as a human maypole around whom the ensemble circulate. It is fascinating to watch the clog dancing and appreciate the subtle difference from tap dancing such as the use of the entire foot rather than the toe and heel.

The appeal of ballet is often regarded as limited to audiences who already have an interest in the genre but Birmingham Royal Ballet’s charming production of La Fille Mal Gardee will warm the hearts of any audience, regardless of their taste.

David Cunningham