Ribbon Play enjoyed the height of its popularity in 19th century England when factory-made toys were mostly available only to the wealthy. Youngsters in the common classes played with toys made out of household items: clothespins became dolls, a broom or umbrella became a pony, a wooden box became a boat, dolls were made from cloth stuffed with sawdust. It was a time when the young had to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. There was something about the joy of playing with ribbons that endured for a long time — maybe it was the simple surprise of unfurling a core of satin and watching it float in the air like waves in the sea. The basic human response to ribbon play was joyous and carefree. Did we say basic human response?
Had Sir Frederick Ashton ever caught a glimpse of these two kids in their ribbon play, his La Fille mal gardee might have included more than just a pony, chickens and a rooster:
Ashton’s beautiful 1960 version of La Fille mal gardee (translated: the badly guarded daughter) will survive only if major ballet companies continue to perform it. ABT first performed it in 2002 and again in 2003 to rave reviews but allowed nearly a decade and a half to go by before presenting it again. But La Fille is back and in fairly fine form with much to love about it. Why the audiences have been tragically sparse and not filled with children is another testament to ABT’s inept marketing of its artistic product.
There simply isn’t another choreographer who has come within a mile of Ashton’s inventive abilities of incorporating props into classical ballet. Most choreographers use props as little more than stage decor. Ashton’s props always dance and always have important roles in furthering the ballet’s story. Ribbons, hay sickles, vegetables, butter churn — they all dance in La Fille. His free imagination bubbles forth as does his sheer, sunny joy of creating art. These days most new ballets have the look of being deadline driven and factory molded.
On Thursday night, Stella Abrera and James Whiteside enjoyed phenomenal debuts as Lise and Colas. Marcelo Gomes as Widow Simone and Arron Scott as Alain in their second performances of those roles were already a variety of Ashtonian stage animal.
For her part, Stella brought a youthful, joyous, tender quality to Lise. Not too recalcitrant, never impertinent, and with sulking episodes that were never overdone or lasted too long, she showed us a festive Lise whose dancing rejoiced in her love for Colas. Her jumps in her Act I variation were effortless modest arcs with lifted torso that glided along the wind notes of the flute and landed softly – so characteristic of Royal Ballet dancers in this production. It takes tremendous skill to reduce the size and scope of a grand allegro step without making it look like the dancer is marking a big jump. The movement still must be sustained but it relies more on coordination than umph and effort. The breezy lyrical quality of her movement was as lovely as ever. The narrowness and soft curving trajectory of her lines were exquisitely revealed time and time again. Although the very first arabesque balance under the fan of ribbons overhead was a miss, her rotating balance in attitude self-supported by holding the apex center of the rotating ribbons over her head was brilliant. When Colas stepped up to Lise to prepare to lift her to a shoulder sit, he observed how secure her balance was and simply allowed her to continue rotating by herself for several extra counts of music before finally picking her up. Very pretty indeed.
We are not generally fans of James Whiteside’s dancing or his seedy self-promotion, but he did a superb job last night partnering Stella. He gave her every confidence and opportunity to dance her best, was totally "with her" in the story, and didn’t over-mug even when there was temptation to do so. At the end of the Act I PdD, his single arm "bum lift" of her over his head was epic, the only Colas to accomplish it in the three times that Haglund has seen it attempted this week. He then walked downstage several steps with the beaming Stella aloft before safely bringing her down to a lovely final pose. His own variations were also probably the best of the three Colases that Haglund saw, although none of the Colases were able to whiz around in the complex turn sequence that begins with backward paddle turns. (There are supposed to be four paddles, but nobody attempted more than three.) We think the problem was that each Colas was trying to beat the turns out of the music instead of seducing the revolutions with love. It usually works better when a dancer puts love into his/her turns instead of fighting for them.
Arron Scott’s portrayal of Alain is one for the ages. He was dead-on target with the tragically Petrushka-like stupidity and was utterly charming and lovable. He very nearly stole the show riding his red umbrella "pony" and is today very much a reason to buy a ticket even if you don’t care for this ballet. His character's naiveté was encased in brilliant dancing, brilliant prop use, and brilliant acting.
Marcelo Gomes as Widow Simone, a character who Ashton based on pantomime artist and clog dancing champion Dan Leno (pictured right), might have over-played it a bit more than we recall Kirk Peterson did during ABT’s first run of the ballet, but it was pure gold. His rapport with his wayward daughter was the smartest, most spontaneous-looking give & take among the casts that Haglund has seen. Marcelo's clog dancing with the girls was replete with shuffles, taps, and heel-claps, and looked for all the world like Mama steppin’ out.
Patrick Frenette’s high-stepping swagger as the Cockerel was outstanding as were his silly Hens (Lauren Bonfiglio, Breanne Granlund, Erica Lall, and Jin Zhang). Thomas Forster as Thomas, Alain’s rich father who had been trying to set his son up with Lise, was perfectly pompous.
The corps de ballet made dancing in close quarters with farmer sickles look like the most natural thing. All were spirited, seemed to be especially enjoying dancing on stage with this principal cast, and were in good form.
The Pump Bump Award, an Alexander McQueen straw stiletto, goes to Stella Abrera and Arron Scott for their brilliant dancing and characterizations in La Fille mal gardee: