La Fille mal gardée, Mikhailovsky Theatre, St Petersburg – review

Mikhail Messerer has brought Frederick Ashton’s 1960 bucolic comedy to his company, St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, with all the care of the restorer of a much-loved painting. This is La Fille mal gardée as many have never seen it, painstakingly cleaned of the interpretative varnish and choreographic retouching of decades of performance; it is a return to the text of the BBC screening with the original cast, and is something of a revelation. It is 100 per cent Ashton, of that there is no doubt, but the restoration of certain steps, gestures and narrative emphases shifts slightly our view of this familiar work, and, as with the loving recreation of Osbert Lancaster’s cartoon-like designs, makes the ballet’s hues and tones vibrant once more.

The challenge was two-fold: how to engage a Russian public unused to the specifically English humour and sensibility of Fille and how to get the company to dance it authentically, with sensitive musicality and sufficient fleetness of foot. For the latter, Messerer wisely engaged Michael O’Hare of Birmingham Royal Ballet. O’Hare has done careful work, ensuring that the corps de ballet impress with their speed and willingness to bend, and that the principals treat this work as more than a dance piece – the steps are imbued with the narrative in a way alien to Russian practice.

On first night, O’Hare was a richly detailed, fusspot Widow Simone, a masterclass for the cast around him. The audience, frankly bemused by the first act with its cavorting chickens and ribbon dances, warmed as the ballet wove its spell. The style may be specific, but the deep humanity of Ashton’s characterisations is universal.

After all the talk of guest appearances by big-name stars, it was right that the first performance was a company affair led by the youthful Lise of Anastasia Soboleva and Colas of Victor Lebedev. Both grew in confidence after a tentative start, Soboleva in particular fizzing with defiance towards her mother and desire for her lover, dancing with warmth and Ashtonian pliancy. By the joyous conclusion, with the whole cast singing along to the music, they had convinced themselves and their audience of this ballet’s great worth. UK import Philip Ellis ensured authenticity in the pit with brisk tempi and lively playing.

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