Sir Frederick Ashton's masterpiece "La Fille mal Gardee" is a love story tied up with pink ribbons, a celebration of simple pleasures expressed in the highly artificial language of classical ballet and a character comedy of exceptional charm and cleverness.
In two acts of delicious pastoral subterfuge, it refutes the supposition that mother knows best, suggests that a young man will more easily renounce his fiancee than his red umbrella, accepts (and forgives) human error with deep generosity and fills the stage with one sublime lyric duet after another. Some people think it is the greatest ballet comedy; others know it is.
Ashton created it in 1960, incorporating elements of the 18th-Century French original of the same name, Russian mime traditions, a patchwork of French and Italian music (credited to Ferdinand Herold as adapted by John Lanchbery), 20th-Century Soviet innovations in male virtuosity, plus liberal borrowings from the British pantomime idiom. Miraculously, the result emerged pure Royal Ballet--from the sly humor of Osbert Lancaster's scenery to the refined classical technique underlying all but the most fanciful caractere variations.
It is an index of Robert Joffrey's meticulous attention to style that "La Fille" lost none of its vaunted mellowness of tone in its Orange County premiere Friday in Segerstrom Hall. Indeed, the Joffrey Ballet staging (supervised by Alexander Grant) represents one of those great validations of Joffrey eclecticism that has helped keep all of American ballet on its toes--and sometimes off.
Bigger, richer companies than the Joffrey now routinely attempt hyperkinetic modern dance on one night and ultra-elegant narrative challenges the next, as the Joffrey Ballet did on Thursday and Friday in Orange County--but seldom with the absolute surety of this comparatively small, underfunded ensemble.
From stellar guest artist Stanley Holden (re-creating the travesty role he had danced in the world premiere) to the unrecognizable company members cast as barnyard hens, this was a uniformly persuasive "Fille"--a "Fille," moreover, that grew most memorable not in Holden's inspired clog dance as the Widow Simone, nor even in Edward Stierle's delirious antics as the simpleton Alain, but in the ravishing romantic adagios.
Appearing as a team in this ballet for the first time--though experienced in their roles opposite other partners--Tina LeBlanc and Glenn Edgerton exuded a sweetness, ease of articulation and supple, eloquent sense of line that linked their dancing to those noble yet unassuming 19th-Century peasant duets by Bournonville and Petipa that served as Ashton's prototypes.
Except for one unsuccessful lift, the made-for-each-other rapport they achieved also carried them through the celebrated, grueling moments of Ashtonian whimsy--the passages where ribbons must be tied in a lover's knot, wound up around the dancers' waists or pertly jumped over, for instance.
Edgerton still danced Colas with a dreamy elegance, as if he had some happy secret, and LeBlanc displayed a new (and needed) vivacity to match the technical polish she always possessed as Lise. Holden continued to be amazingly touching (as well as amusingly tetchy) without ever descending to high camp. Stierle rocketed from one absurdity to the next with astonishing energy. Paul Shoemaker made the pompous rich father, Thomas, the bluff caricature that Ashton intended.
Allan Lewis conducted the score appreciatively and the rich Segerstrom Hall acoustics made it matter as never before.