One of the earliest ballets to feature ordinary people, rather than gods and kings, La Fille Mal Gardee – which means, approximately,the badly watched daughter - is a simple love story in which boy (Colas) meets girl (Lise), they fall in love, problems, in the form of the girl’s ambitious widowed mother (Simone) and rich but rather foolish suitor (Alain), intervene, but the couple overcome and live happily ever after. Obviously it’s a comedy, rather than a tragedy, with the Widow Simone and Alain providing good comic roles for male dancers.
The ballet was first performed in 1789, choreographed by Jean Dauberval in Bordeaux, and set to music created from 55 popular French airs. It was then titled Le Ballet de la Paille(the Ballet of Straw). Since then it has been revived, retitled and reenvisioned a number of times.
There are two versions commonly performed now. In Russia, in particular, Alexander Gorsky’s 1903 choreography to a score by Peter Ludwig Hertel is often presented. The second, probably most familiar to modern audiences, is Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1960 revival for the Royal Ballet, using music adapted by John Lanchbery, from the original pastiche and a Ferdinand Hérold score from 1828. This is a lively and often even riotous piece, which includes maypole and clog dances and even chickens (which lack, it must be said, the grace of swans).
The Royal Ballet’s adaptation established itself as a favourite with the ballet-going public and remains perennially popular – it even manages to please the less dance-oriented (including blokey blokes).