Nao Sakuma’s sunny ‘Goodbye’. Birmingham Royal Ballet in La Fille mal gardée

Bristol Hippodrome
July 7, 2018

David Mead

In this most wonderful of sunny summers, how appropriate that Birmingham Royal Ballet should bring back Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, surely the happiest, sunniest ballet around. It was a beautifully bright and enchanting afternoon, but also one full of many other emotions, for this was also BRB dancer of 23 years Nao Sakuma’s farewell performance.

Sakuma’s early training may have been in Japan but over the years her dancing, especially of Ashton’s comedy, has become as English as apple pie. Her fine technique has been commented upon regularly, but she has long been a consummate actor too, especially in light comedy roles like Lise or Swanilda, where she played everything with a fine touch and exquisite timing. No more will we see that winning smile, that expressive face, that rolling the eyes in utter disbelief, or mortification at her own actions, as in Fille when she realises Colas saw every part of her soliloquy about having children.

Going back to the dancing, here Sakuma again made Ashton’s tricky footwork look easy. Her Act II variation in the ‘Fanny Ellsler pas de deux’ at the picnic seemed to have an extra lightness and freedom. In his blue jacket and yellow tights (a colour palette straight out of Michael Palin’s wardrobe) as Colas, Yasuo Atsuji, her real-life husband celebrating his promotion to principal dancer, radiated happiness too. There were a couple of minor slips but the afternoon was getting to everyone, and not because of the football.

Nao Sakuma (with Yasuo Atsuji, right) received a standing ovationPhoto Angela Kase
Nao Sakuma (with Yasuo Atsuji, right) received a standing ovation
Photo Angela Kase

Elsewhere, Michael O’Hare was entertaining as the bossy, pantomimic, bonnet throwing, flowerpot tossing but deep down loving Widow Simone. His clog dance was full of gusto. Aitor Galende got the comedy just about right in his debut as the simpleton, Alain, while also making us just a little bit sorry for him; the ‘accidental victim’ of the story.

Act III was especially touching. Perhaps it was because we all knew that last moment was now not far away. When it arrived, there was something wonderfully appropriate about the end: a short but loving pas de deux, one last set of fouettés, needless to say done to perfection, before being hoisted on high, and finally being carried off in her husband’s arms. It was one time when you wished it could have ended there, and Alain didn’t have to come back for that red umbrella.

The Bristol audience wasn’t the largest but it rose to acclaim Sakuma in the hugely emotional curtain calls that followed. Huge applause from the cast too; and in a sweet moment, a bouquet delivered to mum by 3-year-old daughter, Karen, who marched onto the stage with remarkable confidence.

Nao Sakuma's young daughter, Karen, presents a bouquetPhoto Angela Kase
Nao Sakuma’s young daughter, Karen, presents a bouquet
Photo Angela Kase

Sakuma and Chi Cao, who retired from the stage the previous weekend with Romeo and Juliet, were then new artistic director David Bintley’s first picks from The Royal Ballet School. Of course, others will take their place and new favourites will emerge, they always do, but with them gone, and Bintley leaving the company next summer, it feels like the closing of an era.

Birmingham Royal Ballet will perform La Fille mal gardée at the Birmingham Hippodrome and on tour in the autumn. Visit for dates and venues.

Coming soon: David Mead talks to Nao Sakuma and her long time regular stage partner Chi Cao about their careers, retirement and future plans.