Jean Christoph Lesage: The ballet La fille mal gardée is always a great success


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Opera Slovakia recorded an interview with the principal ballet master of the Vienna State Ballet, Jean Christoph Lesage. In the SND, under his leadership, the staging of the ballet La fille mal gardée with the choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton was performed with the announced premiere on November 18 and 19, 2022. Commissioned by the copyright holders, J. C. Lesage performs this choreography all over the world. The first premiere of this production took place at the London Royal Ballet on January 28, 1960.

Slovak version

The comic work tells the story of the widow Simone’s vain attempt to prevent her daughter’s love for a young farmer. About the new production in the Slovak National Theatre you can read more HERE…

Jean Christophe Lesage was born in Freiburg. He received his ballet training at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris. His teachers were Roger Ritz, Pierre Lacotte, Raymond Franchetti and Claire Motte. Between 1981 and 1987, he was a dancer in the Ballet National de Marseille – Roland Petit, in the Bonn Ballet under the direction of Peter van Dyk and in the Ballet Basel under the direction of Heinz Spoerli. In 1988 Konstanze Vernon engaged him as a Soloist with the ballet of the Bavarian State Opera. In 1993 he began teaching at the Heinz Bosl Foundation and with Jessica Iwanson; from 1995, he worked as a répétiteur at the Bavarian State Ballet.

After completing a degree in ballet pedagogy at the University of Music and Drama in Munich, Jean Christophe Lesage became the ballet master of the Bavarian State Ballet in 1998. In 2004 he transferred to the Ballet de la Comunidad de Madrid and became the ballet master and assistant to Victor Ullate. Since 2007 he has been the répétiteur and ballet master for the Vienna State Ballet. He was responsible for the staging of La Fille mal gardée not only for the Vienna State Ballet but also for the companies in Bordeaux, Budapest, Tokyo and Seoul. In 2019 he staged Pierre Lacotte’s La Sylphide at the Teatro Colón Buenos Aires.

Jean Christoph Lesage na skúške baletu Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, foto: Juraj Žilinčár / SND

When was you staging La fille mal gardée for the first time?

For the first time I was staging the choreography of La fille mal gardée in 2017 in Vienna State Opera where I am working as a ballet master including practically the whole ballet repertoire. Jean-Pierre Gasquet who is responsible for the artistic level of the La fille performance and Mike Dixon who is responsible for the contract came to Vienna and after watching my work they asked me if I wouldn’t mind becoming a part of their team and traveling with them everywhere they need to stage this version of the piece. I said “Yes, with pleasure” and since then I staged it in France, then in Budapest and South Korea and later on I will also travel in Italy.

Has also Jean-Pierre Gasquet come with you in Bratislava?

He came with me in Budapest and also in Tokyo, but now he is already ninety and after Covid he decided rather not to travel.

This version of La fille mal gardée was created in 1959, so it comes from 20th century. What kind of choreography is it?

I mean, it’s a little bit like in the movie. In the cinema you can watch drama or comedy, and just this ballet is more like a comedy. For example, the role of Mother Simone is played by a guy – it’s travesty and her clog dance is surely not classical but folk dance. The way of Alain’s dancing, the son of Thomas, who should get married with Lise is, I mean, also rather far from classical choreography. And the piece is also a good comedy for the family – there is a Rooster with Chickens, and originally there was even a little pony coming on the stage but now this cannot be done because of the animals’ rights. When I staged this choreography in Bordeaux there was a pony, in Japan and Budapest as well, but last year in Korea this was just not possible and the same is also in Bratislava and Vienna. So, we substituted it with two boys.

F. Ashton, J. Lanchbery, L. Joseph, F. Hérold: Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, Kristian Achberger (Colas) a Tatum Shoptaugh (Lise), foto: Anna Vágnerová / SND
F. Ashton, J. Lanchbery, L. Joseph, F. Hérold: Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, Damián Šimko (Kohút) a sliepočky, foto: Juraj Žilinčár / SND

La fille mal gardée is based on classical ballet, but there are not only classical steps. The basic ones are classical, but they often turn somewhere else, for example in the chicken dance and in many places, especially for the corps de ballet, it looks more like a folk dance. It is a little bit the mixture of all styles.

There are also many requisites – the bottles, the sticks for the guys and the ribbons for the ladies. In the classical ballet this is unusual. Just this also makes the piece so difficult because the dancers are not used to work with them.

For example, the ladies are creating various patterns with the ribbons, and they must exactly know how to do that. The soloist is dancing with her ribbon and around her the girls are turning, but she must turn exactly with them. So, that’s what you don’t have in the classical ballet, and, I mean, Sir Frederick Ashton applied incredibly many new points to this choreography. This is the reason why it has been so successful.

F. Ashton, J. Lanchbery, L. Joseph, F. Hérold: Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, foto: Juraj Žilinčár / SND
F. Ashton, J. Lanchbery, L. Joseph, F. Hérold: Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, foto: Anna Vágnerová / SND

There are also pretty examples of pantomime. The audience needs to understand the body speech when, for instance, Lise says, “Mama me, I love this guy.” It is a sort of message to the spectators. You know, the more you rehearse, the more you can tell them. And this all is exactly consistent with the music, that’s Ashton. The music tells and helps the dancer to say what is important but if somebody remains somewhere in between, then it’s not as good as it could be.

So, the choreography is principally based on the classical steps, but really hard technique, the dancers have to show a lot of it. The pas de deux’s are also difficult, but for the corps de ballet the dance is a bit lighter. It is anyway classical, but often mixed with the folk-dance steps.

Which numbers from La fille do you consider the most important?

I mean, the people mostly remember the Clog dance of the Mother Simone with four girls because it is funny as a real comedy. However, in all numbers, there is a lot of very beautiful moments. For example, in Sleeping beauty or Swan Lake there are some lengthy passages with rather slow motion but in La fille it is always something funny happening, and this is the second important reason why it has been so successful. I mean, it’s great that Nina Poláková took it to the company repertoire, also because in many places of the world the life is horrible now, especially due to the war and the Covid.

F. Ashton, J. Lanchbery, L. Joseph, F. Hérold: Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, Juraj Žilinčár (vdova Simone), zbor, foto: Anna Vágnerová / SND
F. Ashton, J. Lanchbery, L. Joseph, F. Hérold: Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, obraz búrka, Juraj Žilinčár (vdova Simone) a Gerardo Gonzalez Villaverde (Alain), foto: Anna Vágnerová / SND

So, bringing something like this to the people will make them happy and for now it is much better than something heavy like killing somebody with the knife. And it is, I would say, fresh and very suitable for the children. Everywhere you stage it, it’s always a big success. I think, Nina Poláková did really good choice.

Could you shortly evaluate the difficulty of this piece?

Well, you cannot stage this ballet everywhere because you need certain level of dancers able to cope it. It cannot be done by each company because first of all, it needs a lot of people and second, the same important is that they have to be high-quality professionals. When I was here watching the ballet concert last year, I recognized this ensemble can dance the choreographies typical for the big companies.

Looking in the repertoire of SNT Ballet, there is a lot of classical ballets like Giselle or Nutcracker and the audience people want to see it. For example, the grandmother with the children, they surely need classical ballet. They don’t want to see something modern because they don’t understand it. Of course, in between it’s needed to bring also some neoclassical and modern dance like Signatures of Masters and Fashion Gala, this is also inspirative. But good company must do classics, otherwise it loses technique.

F. Ashton, J. Lanchbery, L. Joseph, F. Hérold: Zle strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, Gerardo Gonzalez Villaverde (Alain), Olga Chelpanova (Lise), foto: Juraj Žilinčár

So, how do you perceive the ballet ensemble of the Slovak National Theatre in the international context?

I think, during the direction of SNT ballet by Nina Poláková the people start to look in the direction of Bratislava saying that there is a ballet which cannot be seen everywhere. She succeeded to bring here famous choreographers because she was working in Vienna where we had huge repertoire. She is taking the best we did there and not, for example, the old low-cost or even cost-free choreographies…

I am happy and I have to say that the company is working very well. The dancers developed a lot and they’re really nice to work with. I can see they really try to fill their tasks, and also although they don’t speak my language, because I speak English and French, they really make an effort to understand what I am telling them anytime.

Jean Christoph Lesage, Kevin Rhodes, tlačová konferencia k baletu Zle-strážené dievča, Balet SND, 2022, foto: Natália Dadíková / SND

You know, not everywhere you can find this. Because such work usually needs time. But members of ballet are open and often ask me “Is it correct? Is it the way you want to have it?” It’s like a puzzle – everything needs to take its place.

And I also have to say that the costumes made in the Slovak National Theatre workshop are beautiful. The set comes slowly, but everything looks nice. Also technicians are great helping and making the work possible, and with Kevin Rhodes the orchestra sounds good and he is taking care of dancers. I am very happy being in Bratislava and I will be happy to come again.

The questions were asked by: Ján Marták


Podporte časopis Opera Slovakia
Článok je chránený autorským zákonom a jeho akékoľvek použitie, alebo šírenie bez písomného súhlasu redakcie Opera Slovakia alebo autora je zakázané.

O autorovi

zástupca šéfredaktora Opera Slovakia, podpredseda redakčnej rady Opera Slovakia, spravodajca, publicista a odborný korektor, člen Slovenského centra Medzinárodnej asociácie divadelných kritikov (SC AICT)

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