With plenty of real-life doom and gloom surrounding the world, a ballet – particularly a comedic one – provides a very welcome escape. Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée story is based upon a French ballet from 1789 by Jean Dauberval and loosely translated as The Wayward Daughter. Ashton infused his love of the Suffolk countryside into the production, which premiered in 1960, and included some references to English folk dance. The Royal Opera House La Fille Mal Gardée ballet follows two lovers, a meddling mother and an unsuccessful attempt at matchmaking.

The lighthearted ballet was shown as part of the Royal Opera House’s From Our House to Your House series of streaming dance and opera performances, which included Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia, Cathy Marston’s The Cellist and Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis. The recording is from 2005 and runs approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes (without intervals).

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A dancer kicks her leg back into arabesque and touches a man's chest
Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta of the Royal Ballet dance together in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Royal Ballet: La Fille Mal Gardée Review

Act I

A quirky quintet of chickens flees the coop and welcomes the audience to the English countryside – designed for the theater by cartoonist Osbert Lancaster. His set, which looks like sketches filled in with watercolors, features a small pond in front of a rustic wooden fence, grassy hills sparsely occupied by a few cows and a golden field.

Even whilst dancing separately, it’s apparent that the charming Lise (Marianela Nuñez) and Colas (Carlos Acosta) make a marvelous match… despite being wrested apart by Lise’s mother, Widow Simone (William Tuckett). The cranky cabbage-hurling matriarch is reminiscent of the larger-than-life characters danced by the irreverent Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo troupe – and not just for the cross-gender casting; the theatrics and physical comedy are top-notch.

A man and a woman embrace on the fruits of their harvest
Marianela Nuñez (as Lise) and Carlos Acosta (as Colas) embrace in The Royal Ballet La Fille Mal Gardée by Frederick Ashton.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Widow Simone’s preferred suitor for Lise couldn’t be further from the charismatic Colas. Jonathan Howells dances the role of socially awkward Alain, successfully feigning ignorance during his follies and foibles. The meek man stiffly introduces himself with a series of ungainly tricks that throw his body off balance. Howells’ performance draws equal amusement and sympathy from the viewers, but it’s a relief to ditch him for a short while.

Later, we’re spared from a cringe-worthy pas de deux in the fields when Colas inserts himself into the dance with Lise and Alain, the latter oblivious to his third wheel status. The plot doesn’t get too wrapped up in the love story, though. The community continues to dance, with nods to traditional English dances: Widow Simone and her small entourage exuberantly stomp a rhythmic ballet clog dance and the corps prettily skips along, weaving colorful ribbons around the Maypole until a violent storm scatters them all.

Dancers hold colorful ribbons in a Maypole dance
Royal Ballet members dance around a Maypole in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée ballet.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Act II

Although the weather calms down for the second act of Royal Opera House The Wayward Daughter, the drama ramps up inside the Widow Simone’s farmhouse. Lise pouts, yet dutifully acquiesces to all of her mother’s requests: winding yarn, dancing to her tambourine music and rubbing her back. Still, Lise gets locked inside while her mother goes out.

She sulks before diving into a sweet daydream about marrying Colas and starting a family together – when he bursts out and surprises her. The eavesdropper easily earns his way back into the good graces of the mortified Lise, but they both panic when Widow Simone returns home. Most of the best dancing is done by this point, though Alain prances to another little ditty; and the striking pair dance once more in an elegant proclamation of love with Widow Simone’s blessing. The townspeople rejoice, while Widow Simone dabs tears from her eyes before joining in with her jaunty moves.

An older mother scolds her daughter, who stands with her hands behind her back
Widow Simone (William Tuckett) scolds Lise (Marianela Nuñez) in Royal Opera House La Fille Mal Gardée.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

True love prevails.

Star Rating:

It’s easy to see why Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée ballet remains a firm favorite with London’s Royal Ballet. Audiences can’t help but root for the two lovers and resignedly shake their heads at Alain’s alien antics, alongside the townspeople. Carlos Acosta makes a dashing Colas and Marianela Nuñez is exquisite, both dancing and acting as Lise. Five stars all around – and it could even be five and a half, in person.

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Did you manage to view the Royal Opera House The Wayward Daughter ballet? Which parts did you find especially funny? Tell us in the comments below.

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