The Mikhailovsky Ballet
La Fille mal gardée
St. Petersburg, Mikhailovsky Theatre
28 April 2015
One of the great ballet partnerships of recent years has been that of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Who can forget their fire-cracking Flames of Paris, or exuberant, daring Don Quixote that made them international superstars overnight? However, they have now taken separate paths and have forged out new individual careers with different partners (though they will join up this summer for Ardani 25 Dance Gala at the London Coliseum on July 17/18th). But there is one thing they have in common: this April and May they are both dancing Frederick Ashton’s English bucolic gem, La Fille mal Gardee – Osipova winning plaudits at The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden and Vasiliev pleasing the audiences in one of his homes, the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg. Both have had punishing schedules of late, especially Vasiliev, who came up to St Petersburg immediately after appearing at the Bolshoi Theatre in Ivan the Terrible with all its Soviet-style thrust and power. It was a big challenge for him to step down several gears for the gentler technicalities of Ashton’s style, but one that he was ready to enjoy.
La Fille mal gardee has had a long history in Russia and I remember seeing the Gorsky version many times during my stay in the Soviet Union, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet Academy under director Sofia Golovkina. Ashton’s ballet was first seen at a White Nights Festival in Leningrad, as far back as 1961 and was well received an in 2002, when the Iron Curtain was well and truly down, Alexander Grant, the original Alain (and owner of the ballet’s rights until his death in 2011), was invited to stage the ballet for the Bolshoi Ballet. Last year, Mikhail Messerer, ex Bolshoi dancer and now chief ballet master of the Mikhailovsky Ballet, received permission to stage the work in St Petersburg, where it has received much success. It was returned to the repertoire again this spring.
Unlike the Bolshoi production, which included many nuances added over the years, Messerer wanted the original Ashton production created and filmed in 1960. He invited Michael O’Hare from Birmingham Royal Ballet, who has had much experience dancing in the ballet, to come and establish the English style on the company and supervise rehearsals, as well as dancing the role of Widow Simone on opening night. The production, now in 3 acts, is attractive and has proved popular with audiences, as was seen this April when the ballet was back in the repertoire.
Russian audiences love the charm of this ballet, it’s very Englishness, and the full appealing palate of traditions it offers: the maypole and Morris dancing, the Lancashire clog dances and the rural costumes, straw hats and country dancing – not forgetting the expected sudden summer shower. (Where would Britain’s reputation be if there was no rain?) They approved of the pastoral scenes by Osbert Lancaster, the dancing chickens, and of course, the adorable little pony that takes Lise and her mother in the trap to the picnic. And they laughed at Alain’s foolishness and his red umbrella.
In this role, Denis Tolmachev played Alain as a dotty, indulged only child rather than the engaging simpleton that Grant created. He made him an embarrassment rather than loveable. The joke was completely lost partnering Lise, when, in mimicking her high penchee leg, he raised his own arm too late, and the moment was missed. However, he was still loved from those around me in the stalls.
I had to check with my binoculars to make sure that Widow Simone was truly being danced by a man. Busty and upright, ‘she’ could easily have been one of the theatre usherettes, and I wondered if those without programmes and sitting further away would have realised. But a man he was, and Roman Petukhov played the role well, bustling around the farmyard and walking with mincing steps. The Widow was somewhat indulgent towards her only daughter Lise, accepting of her naughty moments. There was an obvious bond of love between them, even if there was also frustration at each others’ decisions. ‘She’ was matter-of-fact and obviously liked the idea of marrying ‘her’ daughter off well, and ‘her’ expression when she came up close to Alain for the first time was priceless. ‘She’ was also obviously respected by the peasants and ‘her’ clog dance captivated then and was fun for the audience too. But sadly for Petukhov, the swift syncopated timings were often off the beat and some of his taps were missed.
Timing was a challenge also for the company dancers. Ashton requires precision, lightness and sharp endings and while the dancers achieved the first two, they did not always finish on the beat. However they made good English peasants, polite and cheerful as they set off to work in the countryside and they danced prettily in unison, even if the maypole didn’t get wound correctly!
Anna Kuligina’s Lise was enchanting. Flirtatious and uninhibited, she showed clear lines, dainty footwork and fleet, flying technique. Her acting was believable and her mime clear. She is a petite and vivacious dancer and very light on her feet. She was the perfect foil for Vasiliev’s Colin (Colas) and the pair played off one another. There could be no better role for Vasiliev – he is a naturally bright and breezy person, cheeky and impetuous. He bounded onto the stage with a devil-may-care attitude and was very persuasive in his love for Lise. No wonder she had fallen for him. His dancing was bouncy and sharp and he showed off some beautiful lines and footwork, although there were moments when Bolshoi bravura tried to take over from English understatement. That said, the audience loved his supersonic, well performed leaps and his Tigger-like enthusiasm. He jumped high and his bottle solo showed good sideways splits and ‘frog’ jumps., while his solo at the harvest picnic where he encircled the stage in snappily split stretched jetes, followed by tornado turns, was heartily cheered.
Together the two danced well – they successfully achieved the complicated ribbon weaving (though watching Vasiliev through binoculars showed he was concentrating very hard!) And their final pas de deux was soft and gentle. It was a jolly performance and it seemed strange to come out of the theatre onto the damp streets of St Petersburg, and not the sweet smelling countryside of England.