Alongside an eclectic triple bill, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s programme also consists of the gentle comedy of a classical favourite, Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée.
Compared with the rest of the classical canon, the narrative is relatively mundane. There’s no cursed swan maiden, no princess destined to be awakened by true love. It’s a simple, innocent story of two young lovers who are kept apart by the heroine’s mother, a woman who has higher (read: richer) hopes for her only daughter than a farmer boy.
Nao Sakuma is utterly divine as Lise. The lightness of her feet suggests the elevated feeling of young love, and she holds a magnificent balance: her arabesques look like they could go on forever. Technique isn’t everything of course, especially in a story dance such as this one, but Sakuma’s smile and manner speak volumes; she’s completely convincing as this besotted young girl (despite having been at the Birmingham Royal Ballet since 1995).
She is well matched with Iain Mackay, who seems equally at home in this part. Cheeky and charismatic, his Colas goes from concealing his love for Lise when he’s out ‘with the boys’ to an all-out declaration and celebration of his commitment. But his jumps are not entirely convincing: while not messy, they fail to wow and look in need of some steeliness. In softer, adage moments, however, he is a strong lead performer.
La Fille Mal Gardée is also one of the funniest pieces in the classical repertoire. Ashton has ensured that there are enough comic interludes to offset the at times saccharine central plot (there is only so many dainty little kisses one can take). Much of this is down to Lise’s mother, the widow Simone. There’s something inherently funny about men in drag, and they can sometimes be used to provide a cheap laugh, but Michael O’Hare manages to be greedy, loving, maternal, controlling, and comic-tragic – often all at the same time. During the famous clog dance, his expression goes from that of an angry mother to that of a woman charmed by her daughter’s evident gifts. Five seconds later and he’s transformed further, in to a full-blown tap dancing extraordinaire. In comparison, Alain, Lise’s fiancé by contract, is sadly not given the same depth of character.
In his staging of the ballet, Ashton chose to reintroduce the act one ribbon duet between the lovers that had disappeared from earlier adaptations. Here, it teeters on the edge of going wrong: the ribbon was stuck between Mackay’s legs at one point and the part where they create a shape with the ribbon through some nifty movements was very awkwardly performed. But Mackay made a remarkable save and Sakuma’s balances saved the day.
The supporting roles are also well performed. Lise’s eight friends, are all winning smiles and elegant jumps, and they are a particular pleasure to watch during the act two ribbon dance. It’s a fine production that is well-danced by all. However, at times you sense that the dancers are just going through the motion rather than letting the choreography inhabit their being, and consequently, the production just lacks that certain punch.