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Houston Ballet lightens up with La Fille Mal Gardée

Houston Ballet's production of La Fille Mal Gardée earns well-deserved laughs from dancers and audiences who have weathered a long season of changes. With Ben Stevenson's departure and Stanton Welch's arrival, this year has been a mix of anticipation, anxiety and emotion. On opening night, the dancers seemed to really enjoy performing this comic ballet -- its humor must have been a great escape from other stresses.

Principals Dominic Walsh and Phillip Broomhead were hysterical. Walsh was charmingly awkward in the role of Alain, the vineyard owner's son who's more comfortable playing with his red umbrella than coming on to a woman. And as the stubborn Widow Simone, male principal dancer Broomhead was over the top. His character looked ready to brandish her broomstick at anyone who got in the way of her daughter's marriage.

La Fille Mal Gardée, or The Wayward Daughter, was originally performed in Bordeaux, France, on the eve of the French Revolution. It tackles themes of bourgeois life, which was unusual for ballet at that time. The first production was choreographed by Jean Dauberval to music by Ferdinand Herold; this version was created in 1960 for England's Royal Ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton, one of Britain's best-loved choreographers. La Fille Mal Gardée is one of the few comedies in the ballet repertoire, and Houston Ballet first put it on in 1992.

Ain't no mountain high enough to keep Lise (Sara Webb) away from Colas (Simon Ball).
Jim Caldwell
Ain't no mountain high enough to keep Lise (Sara Webb) away from Colas (Simon Ball).

Houston Ballet's dedication to the classics won't stop with this show. Artistic associate Maina Gielgud has promised her version of Giselle for next season, which also includes Firebird and Romeo and Juliet. But while those story lines are more dramatic and complicated, La Fille Mal Gardée's is breezily straightforward.

The story: A rich farmer's daughter, Lise (danced by Sara Webb on opening night), meets a handsome young farmer, Colas (Simon Ball), and falls in love. But Lise is expected to marry Alain, the wealthy vineyard owner's son, who can barely lift his gaze to meet hers. Still, she's determined to have her way. After some offbeat antics -- and a delightful maypole dance -- the plot thickens. Finally, the persnickety old Widow Simone gives in to her daughter's wishes. Everyone dances and laughs. The choreography is graceful; the acting, believable.

Houston Ballet dancers stepped into these comedic roles easily -- a testament to the company's deep British roots and to Stevenson, who made sure he developed dancers who could act. The result is an amazing stagecraft that mixes technique, storytelling and emotion.

At the ballet's beginning, Lise, the wayward daughter, is expected to stay inside and spin yarn all day. But she's feisty and independent, drawn away from her family's wishes and toward the man she wants. Opening night, Webb gave Lise a strong sense of identity, developing the character fully without becoming distracted by steps or pantomime. Oftentimes with full-length, classic ballets, either the steps or the stories rule. Here, we got both.

The show's well-timed jokes assure us that yes, it's okay to laugh at the ballet. When Walsh's Alain ducked between dancers to avoid having to face Lise, his embarrassment was palpable, and when Broomhead's Widow Simone stumbled over herself dancing in a pair of wooden clogs, she masked her shame with fake bravado. It was a refreshing break from swans and princes.

On opening night, the lighthearted choreography seemed simpler than it was because the story was easy to follow. The leads performed the requisite turns and leaps, and Ball's partnering strength increased as the story went on. Webb danced like a storybook farm girl come to life.

All good stories must end, however. In a fitting good-bye to their careers at Houston Ballet, Walsh, Broomhead and Julie Gumbinner will take their final bows after this weekend's performances. Walsh will concentrate on his own ballet company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, while Broomhead and Gumbinner will move to Fort Worth to join Stevenson, who now heads Texas Ballet Theater. If these dancers feel any sadness at their departures, it will be tempered by the hilarious La Fille Mal Gardée. After a year of transitions, it turns out they'll have one last laugh.

 
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