Paris Opera Ballet: La Fille mal gardée

Palais Garnier, Paris
March 24 & 25, 2024

With several retirements among its étoiles planned for this season and next, the Paris Opera Ballet is in the midst of generational renewal. What better ballet to embrace this than La Fille mal gardée,” which, with its idealized depictions of rural life, revolves around themes of regeneration and love.

Ultimately, Fille is about the small but poignant hilarities of kinship, the everyday frictions that any mother and daughter might recognize in themselves, the repair of old relationships, and the embrace of new ones. It makes sense then that director José Martinez, would choose La Fille Mal Gardee to name his newest ‘star’ ballerina.

Paris Opera Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s La fille mal gardée
Photo Benoîte Fanton/OnP

There is no doubt that Bleuenn Battistoni is a beautiful dancer. Just days after I saw her as Lise, she was appointed étoile (or principal) in an onstage promotion. My first sighting of her was in 2022, as Mitzi Casper in Mayerling, where her many qualities were already abundantly clear, not least her silky arms, sylvan notes of mystery.

The qualities that have made her intriguing in supporting roles in Mayerling and Manon are evident in her Lise, qualities that also gesture to other ballerina roles, with her supple use of the back suggesting shades of Odette-Odile. But while mystery seems well within her reach, mayhem perhaps falls just outside of her natural range.

In the initial moments of the ballet, Battistoni seemed more awestruck than lovestruck, preferring to emphasise Lise’s more gentle side to the point of passivity. Her quieter approach did eventually find its romantic heart in the ‘Fanny Elssler pas de deux’. She floated through its numerous technical demands with breezy amplitude, her elegant lines and delicate, almost fawn-like grace, making for a dreamy combination.

Marcelino Sambé as Colas
in La Fille mal gardée at the Paris Opera Ballet
Photo Benoîte Fanton/OnP

Elsewhere however, her shyer style occasionally clashed with the ballet’s marauding spirit and she never quite found that precise comic timing that enables its whimsical lines to soar. Perhaps that sense was heightened by her partner, guesting from The Royal Ballet, being something of a veteran in the ballet. Marcelino Sambé, on loan for three performances, was a full-blooded and full-hearted Colas.

Like Battistoni, Sambé hugs the air , but his leaping virtuosity is textured with a sculptor’s sense of three-dimensional theatre. His dancing was never confined to a mere vertical axis; he employed bold, plunging shifts of weight and an arresting play with angles, transforming seemingly simple steps into space, and heart, bending drama.

It is this distinctive Ashtonian interplay of light and shade, where piquant footwork contrasts with almost exaggerated twists and bends of the torso (in the sheer force of commitment, Sambé was matched by Andrea Sarri’s intelligently acted Alain), that was missing the following evening.

If Sambé’s performance is any indication, at The Royal Ballet, La Fille mal gardée is regarded as a ‘star turn.’ At the Paris Opera however, the majority of the company’s étoiles were performing Don Quixote at the Bastille. At the Garnier, much of the heavy lifting fell upon younger, more junior dancers.

On Monday evening (March 25), Hortense Millet-Maurin and Antoine Kirscher, both not yet principals, made their debuts as Lise and Colas, respectively. It was also their first time tackling principal roles, which is particularly noteworthy considering Millet-Maurin is only 19.

Antoine Kirscher as Colas in La Fille mal gardée
Photo Benoîte Fanton/OnP

Both brought a youthful freshness to the ballet, but only Millet-Maurin truly shone. Kirscher’s dancing had a pleasing lightness, but after Sambé, his portrayal of Colas felt a little too lightweight. He didn’t seem to quite trust himself to play with the steps, and while his coltish energy was not inappropriate for the role, it also made for some hair-raising moments.

On the other hand, Millet-Maurin, a tiny spitfire of a dancer who has a deft touch with comedy and big eloquent eyes, was a witty Lise. Fleet-footed in the first act and radiant in the second, she was in command every step of the way.