The West Australian Ballet have revived one of the oldest ballets in the classical repertoire with an inspired production brimming with joie de vivre, spirited dancing, laugh-out-loud comedy and French chic.
Originally inspired by a painting of a young woman being berated by her mother, La Fille Mal Gardee received its first performances way back in 1789. Since then it has been performed by many ballet companies with different choreographies. However the version created by Frederick Ashton for the Royal Ballet in London in 1960, and still performed by the Australian Ballet, has become regarded by many as more or less the official version.
This new version, French choreographer, Marc Ribaud, remains faithful to the original story, but has eschewed the maypole dance and the dancing farm animals. He’s kept the action in rural France, but it is now set in the 1950’s and Colas rides a motor-bike and wears James Dean leathers. Ribaud has also retained the tradition of having the role of Lise’s mother, Simone, played by a man, although he has softened some of the usual pantomime-dame elements of the role in favour of more warm and charm in the character.
This version commences in a sun-drenched courtyard, where Lise (Jayne Smeulders) and Colas (Matthew Lehman) dance a languorous pas de deux for which Colas is nude from the waist up.
The erotic mood is broken when four young men join them to perform a series of energetic dances in which the quirky choreography slyly evokes chickens and farm animals. The men in turn are joined by four young women, all obviously friends of Lise and Colas, who has by now added a singlet to his costume, and all, join in the vigorous dancing.
Their merriment attracts Lise’s mother, Simone, (Robert Mills), who admonishes the friends, sends them packing and sets Lise to work churning butter. But no sooner does Simone turn her back, than Colas returns to flirt with Lise.
Eventually the rich and pompous merchant Thomas (Graig Lord-Sole) arrives with his uninspiring son, Alain (Andre Santos), in tow, intending to arrange a marriage between Lise and Alain. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the ballet is concerned with the efforts of Lise and Colas to thwart the efforts of Simone and merchant Thomas.
As the wilful Lise, Jayne Smeulders is sheer delight. Her dancing is confident and beautifully phrased. She is also a consummate actress, who knows how to play comedy without artifice or archness.
Matthew Lehman, as Colas, also impresses. Though not as strong as Smeulders in the acting department, he looks great as a James Dean look-alike, is a strong and considerate partner in the pas de deux, and an especially thrilling dancer particularly in his Act 11 solos.
Robert Mills is outstanding as Lise’s mother Simone capturing all his laughs with strong comedic timing. His clog dance, flanked by four male dancers in tap shoes, is a real highlight.
But the big surprise is Andre Santos as the unfortunate Alain, more at ease with his beloved umbrella than he is with Lise. Santos tosses off Alain’s intricate, eccentric solos with dazzling virtuosity, while providing a characterisation that is both witty and touching. Graig Lord-Sole also scores as Alain’s wobbly-legged father.
The entire company look terrific in this ballet. Dancing with a palpable sense of joyfulness, they execute the idiosyncratic choreography, with its bent-wrists, up-turned feet and odd body twists, with admirable attention to detail, while at the same time engaging enthusiastically with the story and the characters.
The six young dancers recruited in Canberra, to play the village children, also acquitted themselves well with their dancing, and echoed the ensemble’s engagement with the story.
Aurelian Scannella’s new production of La Fille Mal Gardee for the West Australian Ballet is a co-production with the Queensland Ballet, so is destined to be seen widely. With Richard Roberts’s impressively substantial and attractive settings, Lexi De Silva’s very pretty and flattering costumes and Marc Ribaud’s cheeky and entertaining choreography, this new imagining of one of the oldest ballets in the repertoire could well become the new norm for La Fille Mal Gardee.
Artistic Director: Aurelien Scannella Choreographer: Marc Ribaud Music: Ferdinand Herold & John Lanchbery Set Designer: Richard Roberts Costume Designer: Lexi De Silva Lighting Designer: Jon Buswell Presented by: West Australian Ballet
La Fille Mal Gardee
Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Wednesday 15 October 2014
Season: 15 – 18 October 2014
For more information, visit: www.waballet.com.au for details.
Image: La Fille Mal Gardee – photo by Emma Fishwick
Review: Bill Stephens