La Fille mal gardée, Hippodrome Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

Ashton's version of La Fille mal gardée keeps a lyrical hold on its audience. It tells a sunny love story, and surrounds it with pastoral sweetness. The opening sunrise is greeted by a dance of chickens, strutting and pecking. In the cornfield scene, harvesters bend and sway, sickles in hands, or straighten up, stretching their backs in the sunshine.

However, Birmingham Royal Ballet's revival has far too many rough edges. These steps need cleaner attack, more musical phrasing, and the lovers need more warmth. Even so, the charm holds. At the matinée that I attended, an audience of schoolchildren was caught up from those chickens onwards.

The story is of young love triumphant. The Widow Simone hopes that her daughter Lise will marry Alain, the dim son of a rich neighbour. Lise is in love with Colas, and finally wins her mother round. The names are all French, the music is John Lanchbery's adaptation of Ferdinand Hérold, but it's a very English ballet. The corps dances are full of English folk steps; there's even a maypole to celebrate the harvest. The Widow Simone is a pantomime dame, scolding and affectionate. Michael O'Hare knows how to project, and he stays in character. The Widow's clog dance, one of the ballet's highlights, comes off smartly.

Still, these jokes would be funnier with more musical phrasing. In the first scene, Lise catches Colas's eye over her mother's shoulder, then looks all innocence when the Widow turns round. O'Hare and Ambra Vallo whisk round with attack, but their timing's off: he should miss her by a whisker, not this comfortable margin.

Ashton's choreography for the lovers is tender and witty, and very demanding. Colas makes up after a quarrel by kissing his way up Lise's arm; she turns away, but leaves her other arm ready to be kissed. Vallo opens her round eyes very wide, but she doesn't melt or sparkle. Her feet aren't fast or sharp enough for the exhilarating solos. I was afraid she'd be too cute for the mime scene, Lise's dreams of marriage and children, but Ashton's pace and simplicity carry her through.

Michael Revie is too earnest to be Colas: he's not relaxed or outgoing enough. At the harvest, he partners all the girls one by one. He works through them dutifully, but without much sense of fun. His partnering is secure, here and with Vallo, and his turns are strong and steady.

Kosuke Yamamoto was Alain, Lise's comic suitor. I liked his pouting bemusement, but there could be more contrast between the agonies of excitement and his bounding solos with his beloved red umbrella.

The Birmingham corps found plenty of buoyancy for Ashton's Two Pigeons the previous week, but they've lost some of it here. However, Barry Wordsworth conducted the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in a sprightly performance.

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