La Fille mal gardée made a welcome return to the ABT rep after a 13-year absence. I’m not sure why ABT has ignored the classic Frederick Ashton comedy for all of these years; it is a beautiful, tender, humorous classic for all ages, filled with delightful surprises and innovative choreography.
The two act ballet translates to “The Wayward Daughter” and was inspired by a 1789 painting. It was originally choreographed by Jean Dauberval and given its premier in the same year of the painting. The work has seen many revivals with the Ashton version debuting in 1960. The story centers around Simone, a rich farmer and her daughter, Lise who is in love with Colas, a young farmer. Lise and Colas want to marry, but Simone wants Lisa to marry the rich dimwit Alain. Simone’s attempts to keep the two lovers apart are generally unsuccessful. In Act II, Simone and Lisa return home after a massive thunderstorm. Lise tries to steal the house key from her mother to escape, but is unsuccessful. Colas sneaks into the house, hidden by crops brought in by the local farmers. Alain arrives to the house with his father Thomas to marry Lise. Lise appears in a wedding dress accompanied by Colas. Thomas is angry, tears up the marriage contact and leaves. The two lovers beg for Simone’s approval, which she gives. Everyone leaves until the dolt Alain comes back for his true love-his umbrella.
Ashton’s work is brilliant, filled with delightful touches. Some of the comedy is pure slapstick with Simone hitting people on the head and spanking Lise for her disobedience. It would offend the politically correct crowd, but it is great fun. The pantomime section in Act II is priceless. Lise believes she is alone in her house and dreams of what married life with Colas would be like. Not one, not two, but three little children, with Lise in charge, teaching the youngsters to read, with some old style disciple thrown in. Unbeknownst to Lise, Colas is hiding in delivered crops watching her fantasy. He jumps out of the crops to announce that he wants 10 kids! Lise is embarrassed.
The farmer dances are festive, showing the great community and camaraderie of the workers, particularly the ribbon dances where the farmers hold strands of ribbon as they parade around the farmyard. Ribbons are a theme of the ballet, possibly representing the cohesiveness of the village.
Thursday, May 26
Stella Abrera and James Whiteside were wonderful as leads Thursday. Stella played the role of a shy but determined Lise with delightful energy. Her connection with James was believable in the two slow and lyrical pas de duex. They have danced together before, once in the Philippines in Giselle several years ago. Her solos were done well, with nice grand jetes, fouette jumps, and turns from first position. It is a shame we have had to wait so long to see Stella in lead roles as she was promoted to Principal Dancer last year.
James was subdued, happy to allow Stella to take the lead, not showy in his presentation. They navigated the partnering well, with a difficult one-hand sit lift in Act I. The solo for the male consists of standard steps, and James performed them well including turns in second position with fouettes, coupé jeté manége, Corsaire saut de basque, double tour to the knee.
It was great to see Marcelo Gomes as Simone, the nasty mother Thursday and Saturday evenings. He is a great dancer, but also revealed his considerable dramatic talents in character roles, most recently in Sleeping Beauty as Carabosse. Sure, he sometimes overdid dramatic parts as Simone-and it was great. We can see from his Instagram feed how he prepared for the role:
Also in fine form was Arron Scott both evenings as the idiot Alain, with several clumsy solos. Sometimes it is difficult for high-level dancers to dance in an unskilled, graceless manner, portraying a dolt; he did a fine job in the comedic role.
Saturday Evening May 28
The star of Saturday evening was Gillian Murphy, with a post-performance curtain call celebration honoring her 20 years at ABT. My first reaction to such events is “Has it really been 20 years?” like when I think a friend has a child in elementary school-until I find the not so small child is applying for college. It’s been a great 20 years watching Gillian. I particularly enjoy her endless turns and fouettés. These celebrations are fun, knowing that the dancer still has many performances to go, unlike farewell retirement send-offs.
On hand to congratulate Gillian were Principal Dancers Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston, Hee Seo, James Whiteside, retired dancers Sascha Radetsky and Victor Barbee, and of course husband and former Principal Dancer Ethan Stiefel.
Cory Stearns as Colas was charming, but had a few rough edges on lifts: the one-handed sit lift was poorly timed and instead converted to a standard shoulder sit, avoiding disaster.
Big Hit With Critics, Not with Public
Ballet critics like the ballet and the ABT reviews have been positive:
However, the general public has not embraced the ballet and attendance has been poor, except for performances with Misty Copeland. The Thursday performance had many empty seats in the orchestra; Saturday attendance was better, probably due to Gillian’s 20th anniversary celebration. The story is similar for the first two weeks consisting of Sylvia and Alexei Ratmansky mixed bills.
This season is a departure for ABT over previous seasons and the company would likely benefit from a more concentrated marketing campaign. Ten years ago, the company used tired full-lengths to showcase superstar talents of Julio Bocca, José Manuel Carreño, Angel Corella, Nina Anaiashvili, Irina Dvorovenko, Alessandra Ferri, and others. After those dancers retired, ABT used guest artists to fill lead roles in the same ballets, much to the consternation of home-grown dancers. This season, the company has taken a turn, featuring high quality works such as full-lengths Sylvia, La Fille mal gardée, Romeo and Juliet, and Ratmansky works (two mixed rep bills, a new full-length-The Golden Cockerel-, and his luscious retrograde The Sleeping Beauty), with limited guest artists. These ballets without the star power of previous years need more marketing to a public that has never heard of Sylvia or La Fille mal gardée. For example, La Fille could have been marketed as a family friendly work to attract children. My 11-year old says that it is now her favorite ballet and I’m sure other children would like the ballet. NYCB seems to do a better job of marketing new ballets to the public with innovative marketing campaigns. ABT should give it a try as it is a shame there are so many empty seats for such high quality performances.