La Fille mal gard&eacute;e, ROH, London<br/>Mime Festival, various venues

Bring me a Shetland pony and some pink ribbons...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Rumour has it that the dancers of the Royal Ballet weren't cock-a-hoop at the prospect of a whole season of Frederick Ashton. Some worried that a single choreographer wouldn't supply enough technical variety. The more macho queried devoting a year of their short careers to the work of a man with a penchant for pink. Imagine the locker-room reaction when newer members of the company discovered that La Fille mal gardée not only features more pink ribbon than a flower shop, but a live Shetland pony on stage.

Rumour has it that the dancers of the Royal Ballet weren't cock-a-hoop at the prospect of a whole season of Frederick Ashton. Some worried that a single choreographer wouldn't supply enough technical variety. The more macho queried devoting a year of their short careers to the work of a man with a penchant for pink. Imagine the locker-room reaction when newer members of the company discovered that La Fille mal gardée not only features more pink ribbon than a flower shop, but a live Shetland pony on stage.

Yet the sheer energy level of Wednesday's opening performance suggests that the doubters are won over. This is, crowd-pleasing elements included, a beautifully constructed ballet, packed with technical challenges, not least in bringing off some rather arcane jokes. This time, thanks to smarter drilling and plenty of rehearsal, the cock and chickens whose vaudeville strut opens the first act were rewarded with belly laughs. The hens' striped yellow legs moved in obedient synch, the cockerel's wattles wobbled pompously. The farmyard ensembles were models of sharp detail - though perhaps someone should tell the guys you don't grasp a scythe by its blade. The maypole dance is now a real galop, and for once no one let go of their ribbon.

What stops this dangerously sweet concoction from cloying is the production's openness to fresh nuance. This revival clearly took its cue from the effervescence of its first-cast leads. Carlos Acosta might not be everyone's idea of the typical Ashton dancer, but the radiance of his dancing and its sheer levitational oomph pitches his Colas into the bravura territory Nureyev marked out. Surely not even Nureyev, though, can have looked so good in yellow tights and that flowered waistcoat. As for the ribbon-duet: by making it patently clear that he is only playing along with this girly game so as to get close to a bit of flesh, he emerges with his manhood blissfully unscathed.

The kiss-me-quick sensuality is nicely matched in Marianela Nunez's Lise. She proves not only a fizzing technician, but a radiant actress fully capable of retaining her allure through the bottom-spanking indignities dished out by Widow Simone, and surprising us with old gags. To the familiar "pretending to swat a fly when caught stealing a key from her mother's pocket", Nunez adds a delightful new twist to the spinning-wheel solo, giggling as she circles her mother, winding wool and executing pique steps, half-garrotting her in the process. Some of the very best jokes come out of a botched rehearsal.

Another good bit of casting is William Tuckett's Simone, whom he plays as a game old bird who understands perfectly well why Lise would want to run off into the barn for a cuddle with the best looking man for miles. This twinkly streak makes better sense of his/her willingness to toss her shoes in the air and go for it in the famous clog dance - the daftest and most endearing five minutes ever. Jonathan Howells, as the idiot suitor Alain, introduces a balancing strand of pathos, striking a cross between an autistic five year old and Pierrot Lunaire.

While there are people who claim to dislike this ballet, they're probably the same people who profess not to like the Ealing comedies on film. With its innocence, its lyricism, and its deep nostalgia for a moral code that probably never was, Fille inhabits that same warm spot of Englishness. John Lanchbery's adaptation of Ferdinand Hérold's score catches this very particular feeling. And the Royal Opera House orchestra, under Anthony Twiner, have audibly taken it to their hearts.

Jean-Baptiste André launched the 27th London International Mime Festival a few days with a solo show about what goes on inside his own head. André belongs to the new generation of circus-trained, dance-crossover soloists from France, a country where fluidity between art forms, and a certain existentialist viewpoint, comes with the territory. Intérieur Nuit takes place against two right-angled plywood walls beyond which daylight and birdsong signal the life of every day. Within the walls, other rules apply. Using a tiny digital camera, André projects a live moving image of his movements turned through 45 degrees which casts increasing doubt over what is up, where is down, and whether gravity exists. He also creates a filmic ballet using his fingers and very simian toes, which become, by what means I didn't quite fathom, virtually indistinguishable. There are no laughs in 60 minutes, only wonders.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'La Fille mal gardée': ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 2 April. Mime Festival, various venues (020 7637 5661), to 30 Jan

Comments