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La Fille mal gardée: A delightful dance and pony show

A scene from the National Ballet of Canada's "La Fille mal gardée"

Aleksandar Antonijevic

La Fille mal gardée

  • Choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton
  • The National Ballet of Canada
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Wednesday

Grab the kids, your grandmother, and everyone in between. The utterly beguiling La Fille mal gardée is quintessential family entertainment. Sir Frederick Ashton's ballet also pleases serious dance fans who want to see challenging choreography.

The National Ballet of Canada is dedicating Fille to the memory of former artistic director Alexander Grant, who brought the ballet into the National's repertoire in 1976. He also created the role of Alain, which made him a star at the Royal Ballet.

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La Fille mal gardée roughly means the badly guarded girl. Widow Simone (Matjash Mrozewski) wants her daughter Lise (Sonia Rodriguez) to marry Alain (Skylar Campbell), the nerdy son of wealthy landowner Thomas (Kevin D. Bowles).

Lise, however, loves the poor farmer Colas (Piotr Stancyzk), which is why her mother keeps her under lock and key. Lise turns out to be "badly guarded" because, despite Simone's best efforts, her daughter manages to end up in the arms of Colas.

Originally choreographed by Jean Dauberval in 1789, Fille is one of the oldest ballets still being danced. Ashton created his version in 1960, cleverly keeping his choreography within the French romantic tradition.

This is an important point. Unlike the muscular Russian imperial style, with its virtuoso tricks and showy divertissements, Fille is a true ballet d'action or narrative ballet. The choreography is a continuous flow, with the technical difficulties embedded in the storytelling.

Fille is also a ballet that the National does superbly well. The company's dancing actors breathe comic life into the characters, while negotiating Ashton's hazardous choreography. The National also understands the more subtle French style. Therein lies the charm of Fille.

From the beginning number for the rooster (Christopher Stalzer) and his hens, Ashton has loaded in visual delights: Widow Simone's clog dance, complicated ensemble numbers and lots of props, including a real pony pulling a cart. Kudos to conductor David Briskin and his musicians for their fun-filled orchestral effects.

As in the Dauberval original, there is the clever use of ribbons in Lise's first act solo, her two pas de deux with Colas, and the maypole dance. A dazzling moment has Rodriguez balanced in an arabesque, one point shoe on the floor, her other leg in a raised extension. She has the ends of eight ribbons in her hand. Her eight friends hold the other ends, and as they dance a circle around Lise, her body turns.

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Rodriguez is perfection, making Ashton's rapid footwork look effortless. Stanczyk does the French style in masterful fashion, including the difficult jump turns from a standing position. As the widow Simone, guest artist Mrozewski plays down the man-in-drag camp while portraying the humour. Bowles's Thomas is suitably pompous, but he also shows tremendous love for his klutzy nebbish of a son.

It is Campbell's endearing Alain, however, who touches the heart. Looking awkward and sweet at the same time, Campbell moves through Ashton's limb and torso distortions with fluid ease, never losing his naivety. He is definitely one to watch.

Presumably artistic director Karen Kain was listening to the audience's laughter and thunderous applause at the end. The last time the company performed Fille was 2002; let's hope we don't have to wait as long for the next.

La Fille mal gardée continues until March 4.

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