I expected to be disappointed. At least a little bit. After watching superb film of the Royal Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s 1960 staging of La Fille Mal Gardée — including two Ballet in Cinema screenings led by the expert Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez — I strongly suspected my first experience with Fille at the theater would miss the mark. A trip to London, I assumed, would be needed to see this charming work — part romantic comedy, part pastoral ode — in all its glory.
Who expects to find this very British ballet, which fuses classicism with folk forms including maypole dancing and clogging, on the Gulf Coast of Florida? Yet there it was, rounding out the Sarasota Ballet’s 2012-13 season at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall with an April 18 premiere. There were no pangs of disappointment, either. On opening night, all around me, onlookers couldn’t resist tapping their feet to Ferdinand Hérold’s bouncy score and, in one case, even whistling along. I couldn’t fault them for it.
Odd though it may seem to find Ashton in alligator territory, Sarasota, since Ian Webb took the reigns of the company in 2007, has seen several revivals of the great choreographer’s ballets, including Two Pigeons, Birthday Offering, and Les Patineurs — all works seldom seen in New York.
Fille — the story of Lise, who falls for the farmhand Colas despite her mother’s plans to marry her to the weird but wealthy Alain — has special significance to Webb and assistant company director Margaret Barbieri, both of whom were coached by Ashton personally while dancing the ballet. (Webb appeared as Colas and Alain with the Sadlers Wells Ballet. Barbieri danced Lise with the Royal Ballet Touring Company, now the Birmingham Royal Ballet, which lent Sarasota Ballet their costumes and sets — copies of the sunny Osbert Lancaster originals — for the ballet’s two-day run.)
I had seen the company just once before, in a triple-bill last year that included works by George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp, but in Fille these dancers — particularly the corps de ballet — looked far sharper, more precise, and more uniform in style than I remembered them.
Webb and Barbieri must be proud to have excellent dancers filling their former roles. Kate Honea brings unmistakably American exuberance to Lise and bravely attacks her complicated pointework. Ricardo Graziano, as Colas, proves himself to be himself a superior technician and partner, and further develops his character through glances and smirks. Ricki Bertoni’s Widow Simone might be more cartoonish — in both mime and makeup — than the Royal Ballet performances I’ve seen on film, but he takes ownership of the role and steals the first act with a bold, flawless performance in the famous clog dance.
Fille reveals many loveable characters — all the way down to the dancing chickens that open the ballet — but I’ve always been most intrigued by Alain, who marches to the beat of a different drum (or, as it were, dances to the tune of an off-key flute). His stiff, angular steps and puzzling timing stand apart from the others’ lyricism. Colas makes a fool of him, interrupting one duet with Lise at the picnic with Alain none the wiser, and the other villagers take part in the ridicule. Alain, nevertheless, remains blissfully unaware of, or at least unconcerned by, all of this. Are we supposed to pity him?
Pity seemed out of the question with Logan Learned in the role. His crisp, athletic dancing and radiant smile reveal Alain’s delight in life’s simple pleasures. As he creeps back into the farmhouse at the ballet’s very end, once the happy couple has departed with their dancing and singing retinue, and gleefully retrieves the red umbrella he lavishes with so much attention, we’re happy that he, too, has found love, however strange.