Sir Frederick Ashton's ``La Fille Mal Gard'ee'' is a conceit, a flight of fancy. This modern interpretation of a bucolic farce is no more realistic about the life of peasants than Jean Dauberval's 1789 original. Even revolutionary Parisians didn't expect to see heavy balletic melodramas about hard times down on the farm. The obstinate Lise and her boyfriend Colas, who finally win the blessings of her mother, the Widow Simone, through a series of pranks and miscalculations, must have been romanticized types even at the time of their creation. The Joffrey Ballet, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a handsome new production of the Ashton ``Fille,'' used to do a one-act version by Fernand Nault. In those early days, the Joffrey was less sophisticated, strong on charm and romanticism, and in a way better able to project a believable ``Fille'' than it is now.
Ashton choreographed his version in 1960, and it combines rustic naivet'e and 19th-century stage effects with the high jinks of the English music hall. ``Fille'' romps to its happy ending with barnyard animals, a live pony and a cart, Dickensian supporting characters, thunderstorms, and a generous supply of vaudevillian jokes.
Few Americans have been able to capture Ashton's particular blend of caricature and immaculate classical technique, and the Joffrey Ballet gave us the outlines of the work without its nuance. The Joffrey production, which opened the company's fall season at City Center, was directed by Ashton's associate, Faith Worth, from Benesh notation. Osbert Lancaster's wonderful two-dimensional sets based on traditional paper toy-theater designs, John Lanchbery's scoring of the original music by Ferdinand Herold, and the assistance of a battalion of other Ashton hands coudn't quite establish the flavor that ``Fille'' has when it really works.
One problem lies in the dancing. The Joffrey, after all, is a contemporary company, and although they perform a large 20th-century repertory that includes several other Ashton ballets, they're best known for their speed, flexibility, and ensemble spirit. ``La Fille Mal Gard'ee'' has several exacting solos for Lise and Colas as well as two important duets, and the principals I saw, Dawn Caccamo and Ashley Wheater, simply couldn't manage the technical demands.
The miraculous thing about Ashton's choreography is its seriousness. The characters may be demented, their antics irrational, but who they are and what they do is embedded in a fine fabric of communal action and taste. There are harvest dances and folklike ensembles. There's much byplay with ribbons in the early part of the ballet -- Lise and Colas pledging and securing their love in the central pas de deux. The ribbon motif is echoed in the villagers' ribbon dance around the lovers, an idea that later evolves into a maypole.
The formality of these dances, and the satisfaction the audience gets from seeing them worked out, gives credibility and even redemption to the characters' more lunatic behavior. Colas lays his head on Lise's shoulder while he's helping her churn the butter and takes a pratfall when she jumps up and leaves him leaning in midair. The Widow Simone alternately whacks at her daughter and locks her up to protect her virtue and of course fails completely. But the dancing reveals a core of sweetness in the characters' feelings for one another. In the first act, when the lovers switch abruptly from kidding around to lovemaking, they replace prancing and miming with classical adagio, and the tone of the ballet changes.
Everyone in the Joffrey production seemed to be pushing for the broadest possible effects, led, perhaps, by guest artist Stanley Holden, who created the travesty role of the Widow Simone when he was a character dancer with the Royal Ballet. Mr. Holden mugged matter-of-factly throughout and skimped on the clog dance which usually makes me forgive the campiness of the role.
Mark Goldweber played Alain, the rich man's good-natured but retarded son, to whom the Widow wants to marry off Lise. After grimacing through the first two acts, Mr. Goldweber managed to evoke some sympathy for the character when the marriage contract went awry, and he tried to understand what had happened, finally consoling himself with his umbrella.