In July 1789, less than two weeks before French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in Paris and began the French Revolution, a small company in Bordeaux staged a brand new ballet called La Fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter). Its simple, sentimental story, with links back to the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte, follows the adventures of a young couple, Lise and Colas, whose love for each other is thwarted by maternal authority.
Lise's mother, the Widow Simone, wants her daughter to marry the wealthy but awkward Alain, whose favourite item in the whole world is his umbrella. But the determination of Lise and Colas to be together wins out in the end, and the ballet has always been a great favourite with ballet companies around the world. Although it has undergone many changes since 1789, including several changes of musical score, it remains in the classical ballet repertoire as one of the oldest works still performed today. Now Canberra dance audiences will have the opportunity to see Fille, as it is familiarly called, performed by West Australian Ballet.
However, this is a production with a twist. Choreographed in 2000 by Frenchman Marc Ribaud, it is set in the 1950s in the south of France.
"With respect for the old versions of Fille, they are sometimes a little boring," says West Australian Ballet's artistic director, Belgian-born Aurelien Scannella. "I wanted a production that would give audiences something new and refreshing. It's the same story and the same music, so is still very much recognisable as Fille. Many of the moments that audiences who know the old ballet will remember are still there: the famous clog dance, for example. But be prepared for a surprise or two."
Though Scannella would not elaborate, he did mention that three motorbikes, including one old Vespa, make an appearance, adding to the retro feel of the production. He also revealed that West Australian Ballet sent set designer Richard Roberts to the south of France for a few days to absorb the colour and atmosphere. Roberts met the choreographer in Peille, a small village not far from Monte Carlo. There they had lunch in the village square and photographed the buildings, before Roberts returned to Australia to create his designs. His set for Act II, the Cafe, with its sun-kissed colours, simple architectural lines, big terracotta urns of geraniums and Provencal-blue sky, reflects that little village.
Costumes by Lexi De Silva also create a lovely retro effect. The outfits for the older characters in the ballet recall rural France of an earlier age. But the younger friends of Lise and Colas wear colourful, full-skirted dresses from the age of swing and rock'n'roll, or denim overalls, or jeans with singlets or T shirts. Lighting is by John Buswell, West Australian Ballet's technical director, and this design trio of Roberts, De Silva and Buswell has worked previously for Scannella, who says he likes to invest at least twice in the same artists. The new Fille is a visual delight.
As for the choreography, Sarah Hepburn, who dances the principal role of Lise, says it is great fun. "It is not purely classical but relies on characterisation a lot," she says. "Marc Ribaud came to Perth to conduct rehearsals and he had so much to give. He talked to the dancers a lot about each character. He also had so much energy and he would take on all the roles to show us what he wanted."
Ribaud also talked to the dancers about France in the 1950s, when women were fighting for their rights. So the story became understandable to the dancers as a comment on contemporary life. Lise defies her mother to marry the man she loves rather than behave as a dutiful daughter and marry the man chosen for her. "It feels very relevant," Hepburn says.
This production of Fille also generates lots of laughter from audiences. Scannella jokes that for once it is a ballet where nobody dies - unlike Swan Lake, for example where the leading characters throw themselves into a lake and are only reunited in death. "Even before the show opened, we had such a great reception for our open rehearsals. And now, with every show, we have big smiles and big applause from everyone."
Hepburn agrees. "I defy anyone to leave the theatre without wearing a huge smile," she says.
Aurelien Scannella has been artistic director of West Australian Ballet since 2013. He moved with his family from Europe to take up his position and says living in Perth is a wonderful opportunity. "It is becoming difficult for the arts to survive in Europe. In Perth everything is still possible - it is a city with a future." Sponsorship is helping defray the expenses of the trip to Canberra - always a problem for ballet companies needing to transport sets and props and large skips of costumes, not to mention a full company of dancers.
West Australian Ballet's Fille is an absolute treat. Let's hope Scannella, with his bold new vision, will continue to include Canberra on his company's touring circuit.
La fille mal gardée. West Australian Ballet, Canberra Theatre Centre, October, Canberra Theatre Centre, October 15-18.