Dance: Sunshine, happiness and all that stuff

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The Independent Culture



FREDERICK ASHTON'S La Fille Mal Gardee is surely the best, most enjoyable full-evening ballet created this century: full of sunshine and happiness. It has everything: a good story about interesting characters, invented by Jean Dauberval in 1789 and enjoyed ever since; it has comedy, love and, just beneath the balletic conventions, a great truth of real life.

John Lanchbery's arrangement and extension of the early scores makes an irresistibly attractive base, and Lanchbery himself is conducting most performances in this revival. Osbert Lancaster's designs, although cramped and makeshift, evoke a wonderful rural setting. And, above all, there is choreography of sheer genius: full of virtuosity, but so lightly done that what you see is always the natural expression of situation and character.

That is why Fille is a pleasure to watch, even in a less than ideal performance, and I have to report that standards have varied a lot over the past week. So many years have elapsed since the Royal Ballet last gave it that almost all the dancers are new to their roles, and perversely the management decided to pitch no fewer than six new casts on stage in only five days.

I watched them all, but some are better passed over in silence, whether through miscasting, or misconceived or insufficient preparation. Let me concentrate on the best - although the worst also demands comment: Ashley Page's playing of Widow Simone on opening night was dreadful, full of inappropriate facial mugging, poor rhythm in the famous clog dance, and not the slightest touch of femininity anywhere.

The best performance of the heroine, Lise, who manages to escape her mother's vain precautions against true love, came from Miyako Yoshida: dancing that was musical and spirited. But she had done it before, in the Birmingham production, so let's single out the youngest of the newcomers, Mara Galeazzi, for the freshness and truth of her debut. Much promise, too, from Belinda Hatley and Sarah Wildor, especially if they will both calm down a little in their acting.

Wildor had Bruce Sansom as her elegant, charming lover, Colas. Hatley's Colas was the company's new principal dancer, Carlos Acosta. The strength and smoothness of his dancing were everything we had hoped and expected (although he needs to work on the one-handed lifts); the big surprise was the detail and conviction of his acting.

The most rewarding debut in the other roles was Jonathan Howells as Colas's rich but simple-minded rival, Alain: a notably individual portrait, excellently danced. Alastair Marriott was the best new Simone (he and Yoshida brought alive the love between mother and daughter), with Luke Heydon the most hopeful of the others.

At every performance the dancing of the corps de ballet, especially the women, had a joyful animation that was a delight to see. What a pleasure for them to have so much lively dancing to do - and it shows.