Posted on 20 August 2020 By Rose Mulready

Let the sun shine! Today we’re going to bask in La Fille mal gardée, a sweet, bucolic vision from the quintessentially English choreographer, Frederick Ashton. There’ll be love and laughter and lyrical dancing. There’ll be a thunder storm! A live pony! Chicken dances! Put yourself together a ploughman’s lunch and settle on the sofa for this brimming glass of mood tonic. But before you do, brush up your Ashton.

La Fille mal gardée is brought to you free by our Production Partner Elixr.  


Based on a 1789 French ballet of the same name, the joyful La Fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter) distils all of Frederick Ashton’s love for English traditions and landscapes. It’s a light comedy about a young girl called Lise who loves Colas, a local farmer, and sneaks meetings with him while her mother tries to marry her off to the (rich) village idiot, Alain.  

Ashton’s distinctive style is all about fluttery, fast footwork and a flexible upper body. The impression is one of delicacy and lightness; similarly, he dealt in subtle washes of mood – melancholy, enchantment, tenderness. He made La Fille mal gardée for The Royal Ballet in 1960, and it’s his love letter to all the unsullied pastoral charms of England.

Watch out for: Ribbons! Ashton uses ribbons in a maypole dance, in an intimate pas de deux with Lise and Colas where they play cat’s cradle and he pretends to be a horse in harness, and in the grand ‘Fanny Elssler’ Pas de deux, where eight dancers with ribbons weave around and support the loving couple.

Fun fact: One of the last roles Ashton danced was Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the hedgehog from his ballet film The Tales of Beatrix Potter. There is a small carving of a hedgehog on his gravestone.

David McAllister and Fiona Tonkin. Photography Earl Carter


Our 1989 recording stars former principal artists Fiona Tonkin as Lise and David McAllister as Colas. Their renowned onstage partnership continues offstage today: McAllister is our artistic director, and Tonkin our artistic associate and principal coach. In this recording, they are at the height of their powers as dancers, exulting in the sweetness and exuberance of the Ashton style.  

Watch out for: The ‘window’ pas de deux in Act II. Lise’s mother has locked her in the house, but Colas appears at a window high above the door. At arm’s length, the lovers manage to share a tender dance, with Lise’s feet fluttering giddily above the ground.

Fun fact: Tonkin says that when she was dancing her solos in La Fille mal gardée, McAllister would “blow kisses to me from the wings – it would always make me smile!”

Photography David Simmons


Who didn’t? The original 1789 version was performed to a pastiche of over 50 popular French songs. In 1828, the composer Ferdinand Hérold adapted this score, and also interpolated a number of excerpts from operas. Ashton chose to use this music for his production, but had John Lanchbery arrange it. As he did for the score of The Merry Widow, Lanchbery collaged, improved and added, working closely with Ashton to develop the music around the characters. He, too, borrowed from opera and also composed his own music to weave the disparate parts into a whole – and he did it in only four weeks.

Listen out for: The music for the thunderstorm that ends Act I, which is the storm music from Rossini’s Cinderella.

Fun fact: As well as being a conductor, composer and arranger, Lanchbery served as a music director of ballet companies for 20 years: for The Royal Ballet (1960 – 72), The Australian Ballet (1972 – 8) and American Ballet Theatre (1978 – 80).

Fiona Tonkin, David McAllister and Stephen Morgante. Photography Earl Carter


Osbert Lancaster, a popular political cartoonist, designed La Fille mal gardée, and there is a cartoonish, slightly larger-than-life element to the sets, reflecting the gentle fun of the ballet; but they are far from garish. They depict an English idyll, with haystacks, golden fields, shady trees, gentle streams and flowers. The colours of these tranquil landscapes – sky blue, yellow, pink – are picked up in the costumes worn by Lise and Colas, emphasising the harmony and inevitability of their love. In contrast, poor Alain’s red umbrella stands out like a sore thumb.

Watch out for: The moment when Lise and Colas, alone at last, exchange kerchiefs in their signature colours (yellow for Colas, pink for Lise), symbolising their marriage – which will happen sooner than they think!

Fun fact: Lancaster popularised the one-strip cartoon in English newspapers, and ended up doing over 10,000 of them for the Daily Express; they were a front-page institution, dubbed ‘pocket cartoons’ after the ‘pocket submarines’ employed by the Germans during World War II.