Every review of La Fille mal Gardée should start with an acknowledgement that, however excellent the performance may have been, the greatest credit belongs to Frederick Ashton, who more than 50 years ago put this happy masterpiece together in a few weeks of cheerful collaboration with his dancers. Alexander Grant, who was one of them, described the process as ‘great, great fun’ and claimed that Ashton ‘never changed a step afterwards’. Some of those steps – the Elssler pas de deux, the clog dance – are widely known and loved today even outside the context of the full ballet, but after more performances than I can possibly remember I still find just as much pleasure in the dances of the corps de ballet : the unwinding of the flute dance in the picnic scene, for instance, where the choreography is so simple but so perfectly matched to the music that it seems inevitable.
A work as strongly built as this can easily accommodate a variety of interpretations: what matters is that the dancers should touch our hearts and be true to Ashton. So I’ve seen every variety of Lise from the unmistakeably rustic farmer’s daughter to something reminiscent of Marie Antoinette playing at farming in her Petit Hameau, and every variety of Colas from some very smart young men indeed to someone not that much different from simple-but-happy Alain. That last one was Johan Kobborg at his debut a few years ago and was one of the few I thought just too far out of line, so on this occasion I was pleased to find that he’s abandoned that character almost entirely. He’s replaced it with a Colas who’s much more self-aware and who most of the time shows a real sensitivity to Lise’s feelings and seems believably in love. But … it’s odd that Kobborg, who is such a fine actor in the strongest drama, can sometimes seem artificial when he’s just required to be himself: I get the sense that he’s ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ and in this case that gives me just a slight feeling that his Colas is not sincere – he smiles too much, and there’s the odd moment when teasing slips into mockery – can he really be trusted? And that, played against Alina Cojocaru’s totally committed adoration, takes the edge off the big pas de deux and leaves me feeling less involved than I’ve been by many less famous couples.
Cojocaru herself was enchanting in the long scene with her mother at the start of the second act: as her Titania earlier this season also showed, she has a quite unexpected talent for charming silliness. Elsewhere I found her rather too overwhelmingly sweet, but her dancing is light and lovely. Widow Simone and Alain were respectively too camp and too cute for me; Gary Avis, as Alain’s father, got it just right.
It’s only a few months since Alexander Grant’s death; he inherited the ballet from Ashton, and with it the responsibility for maintaining its integrity, and it remains to be seen if the recently announced Frederick Ashton Foundation can effectively take over that job. As someone at Covent Garden has evidently decided it would be a good idea to drown out the end of the picnic scene with very loud recorded thunder, my hopes are not high – but so far, at least, the ballet still wins out.