This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today, meet Jeff Seroy, who has written on ballet before for the Daily.
“It’s got everything, including a Maypole.”
I asked the choreographer Mark Morris—erstwhile bad boy of the dance scene, now about to turn sixty—as we were discussing a memoir he intends to write, to name a work by another choreographer he loved. His answer couldn’t have intrigued me more: Frederick Ashton’s La fille mal gardée.
Even aficionados of ballet may never have seen La fille mal gardée. It sounds antimodern and retrograde and frumpy and drearily clichéd. A comic ballet set in the countryside about a young girl in love with a shepherd whose bossy mother wants her to marry up? That reeks of mildew and lacks the authority of a canonical warhorse to excuse it. But trust Morris’s taste. La fille may turn out to be the best thing you’ve never seen—or you may wonder, as I now do, whether it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen. After many years out of repertory, American Ballet Theater has just revived their production of this masterpiece, and it’s perfection.
Ashton’s version of La fille mal gardée dates from 1960, when it was triumphantly received, and it remains perhaps his most beloved creation. But the piece has a long history. Created just after the French Revolution, it debuted in July 1789, making it maybe the oldest ballet still performed today. In the eighteenth century, it drew attention for breaking with the old order, whose ballets favored gods and goddesses and mythological figures. La fille spurned all that—along with the hierarchies of court life and the divine right of kings—in favor of provincial domestic frivolity featuring farmers, notaries, and assorted plain folk going about their daily rural tasks and pursuing simple pleasures.
Not long after its debut, La fille traveled from France to Russia, and toward the end of the century it was staged, at the czar’s request, by Petipa and Ivanov, whose version became a star vehicle for some of the Mariinsky’s great ballerinas. Among them was Tamara Karsavina, whose memoir, Theatre Street, recounts one of her earliest performances as a corps member in a school production in front of those eminent choreographers. Over half a century later, Karsavina told Ashton how much she loved La fille, providing him with copious notes on the Mariinsky production. These, according to Ashton’s biographer Julie Kavanagh (but not Ashton himself, who preferred to claim all credit), formed the basis for his Royal Ballet production.
Ashton had recently moved to a house in Suffolk and was intoxicated by the English countryside. Meanwhile, the Royal’s director, Ninette de Valois, was encouraging choreographers to look to English folkways for inspiration. What happened when these vectors intersected is nothing short of a miracle. There can’t be another work in the entire repertory of classical dance—okay, let’s make that dance—as endlessly inventive and of such sustained joy, innocence, and charm. The imaginative magic in La fille comes from Ashton’s deeply felt connections to the land, to English coziness, to dance and theater and folk traditions. One feels in it the love that moves the sun and other stars, and if paradise exists, this ballet is playing there in an endless loop.
I got to thinking, What’s in it for Morris? For the comedian in him, it begins with four chickens and a rooster in a vaudeville routine. Then there’s a storm scene with a madcap denouement a la Mack Sennett, and silly stage business mixed in with social dancing—as in the first act of Morris’s The Hard Nut. There’s a matronly star turn en travesti, and there are props galore: butter churns, wine bottles, carts and live ponies, batons and scythes—and, famously, yards of pink ribbon, with which the romantic duo, Lise and Colas, entwine themselves as they court each other. Further on, Lise gathers the ends of ribbons from eight women who, holding them, run circles around her as she turns on pointe—a moment the New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay likened in a review last month to “the music of the spheres.” And indeed, it feels like a kind of cosmic bliss.
Morris adores props. Early in his career, he made a solo for himself about dance props called “Ten Suggestions.” What do you do with a chair? With a hoop? With a pink ribbon, as it happens? “Ten Suggestions” provided engaging answers. Over the years, he cannily deployed fans, chairs, dolls that get bashed, and, naughtily, in The Hard Nut’s French national dance, baguettes and riding crops. But his most richly inventive ode to props is “Soap Powders and Detergents,” from his evening-length Mythologies. It features tons of white bedsheets, and in a veritable apotheosis of laundry, seemingly nothing that can be done with them by dancers is left undone. La fille, for its part, has clog dancing (including clogging sur la pointe) and Morris dancing, and Morris (Mark, that is) has often found inspiration in folk dance forms and used feet to percussive effect. “Grand Duo” is a fine example of both.
And of course, there’s the Maypole. Morris may very well have borrowed Ashton’s for King Arthur, an operatic variety show that could uncharitably be described as Lawrence Welk presents Purcell. But whatever one may have thought of it—the critics spurned it; a few of us enjoyed it; a former dancer compared it, favorably, to being on acid—its Maypole dance was a sensation. As a dancemaker, Morris must have particularly registered the childlike, hypnotic delight induced by watching ribbons magically braid while dancers weave robust figures around each other to thumping country tunes as they welcome spring. And perhaps most profoundly, Morris has always been drawn to dance that celebrates community. That’s not only true of the Maypole dance: the entire ballet is an abounding example.
Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.