The erosion of a work of art, the diminution of its first integrity, starts with smallest things – an altered step, a scene curtailed, a hint made huge – and can then become a Gadarene rush of decent intentions and enfeebling compromise. The Royal Ballet’s latest revival of Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée – that hymn to pastoral life and innocent love, where the sun ever shines in an ideal world, and the unceasing felicities of his dances beguile the soul – had the dire thumb-print of fresh revisions on it, and I raise this warning flag.
Massively ill-advised is the recorded thunder that now rolls and bombinates like a full-blown monsoon as the first act ends. It is wholly wrong, like the imposed racket that attends Carabosse’s appearances in Sleeping Beauty: Tchaikovsky and Rossini (in Fille) knew their jobs better than the Opera House fidgets. The role of Alain is gaining an encrustation of merry tricks and physical quirks: Alexander Grant’s great original had humour, but also pathos and an innocence lacking from interpretations (as here) which chase the laughs. The cockerel, at curtain rise, seems to have lost those tire-bouchons (a favourite music-hall step for comedians from Groucho onwards) which embellished his solo. And the pretty unwindings of the ribbons on the Maypole at the end of the first act were missing.
Smallest things, but I have watched Fille since its first performances, and I would urge its present interpreters to look at the priceless BBC television recording made within a year of its creation in 1961 which preserves its original cast, original steps, original genius. There are no problems with Marianela Nuñez’s playing of Lise: she is sunlit, adorable, dazzling, infinitely true, and her grace of spirit touches us all. Nor anything but praise for William Tuckett’s Simone: wholly unlike the original interpretation by Stanley Holden, this is yet a reading of happiest, Ashtonian truth. Carlos Acosta gives Colas big physical effects, albeit missing the yeoman sincerity of David Blair’s creation.
And small things are losing their savour because Fille has been identified as a “funny” ballet rather than as a heart-lifting tribute by a master to an idyllic past, both historic and balletic. I must be excused for repeating Stravinsky’s dictum: “A crime against a work of art begins with a crime against its text.”