La fille mal gardée, Birmingham Hippodrome – review

As a general rule, there is a lot more to reviving a great ballet than merely joining the dots. Frederick Ashton’s plotless works are reduced to pretty patterns if they aren’t cast to the hilt with musical dancers who know how to invest every entrance, every step with emotional significance. A recent matinee performance of Les Rendezvous by the Birmingham Royal Ballet was a case in point: the interplay of the promenading lovers had been immaculately rehearsed but their exchanges were devoid of fragrance or mystery.

Ashton’s narrative ballets work differently. Character, drama, wit are all so deeply encoded in the steps of The Dream, Two Pigeons and the 1960 pastoral La fille mal gardée that dancers have only to learn their lines and not bump into the furniture (in Coward’s great phrase) and this sunny romantic comedy will bubble into life.

Few ballets have more furniture than La fille. The whole production is stiff with props and business, every one an accident waiting to happen. Seasoned Fille-watchers will remember tangled maypoles, broken butter churns and cats’ cradles that turned into dogs’ breakfasts. Not in Birmingham. Regular revivals have ensured that the fiddly staging is locked in BRB’s collective muscle memory and this performance (third cast, no less) was gremlin-free.

Joseph Caley, ardent but never laddish, is ideal as the young farmer our heroine prefers to the rich idiot her mother has picked for her. His variations were neatly turned, helped by the flexible tempi of Philip Ellis and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia who had fun with John Lanchbery’s magpie collage of Herold, Hertel, Donizetti and Rossini. He partnered impeccably, holding Momoko Hirata aloft like a prize in the Soviet-style one-armed lifts.

Hirata’s debut got off to a slightly chilly start but any nerves melted in Ashton’s tender duets and in the loving byplay with her ambitious but golden-hearted mama (top clogging from James Barton). The long Act Three “When I am married” mime, meticulously plotted by Ashton with help from Diaghilev ballerina Tamara Karsavina, is almost dancer-proof but was very sweetly done. The ballet’s new owner, Jean-Pierre Gasquet, seems keen to introduce little touches of his own here and there and this should be resisted (with a big stick if necessary). Lise’s filigree footwork, her exultant downstage run on pointe, her serene balance as the hub of a human maypole tell us more about the heroine’s vitality and confidence than any amount of face-pulling. She trusted the steps and the character was born.

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