La Fille Mal Gardee (The Unchaperoned/WaywardDaughter)
Choreography: Jean Dauberval
Music: Ferdinand Herold
Premiere: France, 1789
My summer visit to the Paris Opera to see La Fille Mal Gardee had less to do with any particular interest in the production than with my long-held wish to see the opera house itself. The ridiculous chicken dance in the first few minutes of the ballet didn’t much bother me because I was too preoccupied with the gorgeous Chagall ceiling and images of “La Loge.”
I could tell, however, that the American guy in front of me (coerced into attendance, I’m sure, by his female companion) was thinking that ballet is the dumbest thing he’d ever seen. And if the first 20 minutes of La Fille had been my only exposure to dance, I’d have had to agree with him.
What once may have been charming or amusing – dancers in full chicken costume clomping about in gigantic plastic feet – is now embarrassingly silly. The effect of a pastoral scene might have been achieved with more subtly and artfully. I also remain unmoved by the tradition of en travesti roles (female characters portrayed by male dancers), which is employed in La Fille in the character of The Widow Simone. In a modern context it seems either bigoted (is it funny to see a man playing at femininity? are we laughing at the idea of the male ballet dancer?) or consciously contemporary (are we demonstrating our “ok-ness” with sexual ambiguity?) or strangely both. La Fille creates an exceptionally uncomfortable tension in the juxtaposition of clumsy Widow Simone and odd, effeminate suitor Alain. It feels incredibly un-PC to be giggling at the loping old woman, whom we know is played by a man, and the prancing sissy. The audience laughs along with the main characters and their villager friends and it feels like we’re all ganging up on Simone and Alain, like bullies at a playground.
Redeeming factors, however, did rescue this ballet for me and I now recall it fondly. The relationship between the title character (Lise, the un-guarded daughter) and her lover Colas is tender and mature. In love from the outset, their union grows deeper and more committed throughout the ballet. It’s a welcome change from the more typical boy meets girl scenario. The intimacy and friendship between the two are more believable than the star-crossed romances of other ballet lovers.
There is a recurring theme using ribbons, which is cleverly choreographed and beautiful. At times, Lisa and Colas lovingly entwine one another in colorful spools and later the village engages in a lively maypole dance. Surprisingly, the loveliest, most memorable moment of the ballet is from a brief mime sequence. Lise, believing she is alone, imagines her life as Colas’ wife. Colas suddenly reveals himself and, realizing he has witnessed her reverie, Lise pulls her shawl over her head in embarrassment. Her shyness and humor, and the playful reconciliation that follows demonstrates true intimacy between the two.
In contrast with the cliche of the ballet’s pastoral setting, the relationship between Lisa and Colas feels relatable to a contemporary audience. Balanchine writes in “101” of La Fille that “the earliest of ballets in the current repertory, its universally comical situations are no doubt responsible for its survival.” I would guess, though, that it’s the universal love theme that’s caused La Fille to endure, through numerous re-workings over 150+ years, as a modern ballet treasure.