at the Auditorium Theatre

January 26-28

The Basel Ballet, the only Swiss ballet troupe making a considerable splash on the international theatrical circuit, introduced itself to Chicago with three charming performances of La fille mal gardee (“The Poorly Guarded Girl”), the oldest ballet still in the active dance repertory. La fille, created by Jean Dauberval in 1789, a few weeks before the French Revolution began, also bears the distinction of being the first comic story ballet, with characters who were real human beings instead of the mythic Olympians that the French court generally deemed worthy of theatrical presentation. This celebration of true love, in which poor boy and rich girl foil her mother’s attempts to marry her off to the idiot son of an even richer farmer, was a breath of fresh democratic air in the dying days of the Bourbon regime.

However, the Fille we see today has no choreographic connection with Dauberval’s. His version disappeared long, long ago, along with the music he used. The ballet lives on, in title and story line, because its pastoral setting, good humor, and relatively spicy plot–the protective mother unwittingly locks the young lovers in a bedroom–still offer choreographers and dancers great opportunities to show off their talents.

The music most frequently used today combines Francois Joseph Herold’s score from 1828 with Peter Ludwig Hertel’s from 1868. Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov first used that mixed score, plus additional pieces, when they staged their version of Fille for Saint Petersburg in 1882. That ballet became the basis for all succeeding versions, including this one by Heinz Spoerli, the Basel Ballet’s artistic director.

Spoerli, a native son of Bagel who honed his dancing in Cologne and Canada, returned home 16 years ago to take over what was then a provincial little troupe. He has much to be proud of. He has trained his 40 young dancers beautifully. Their technique is smooth, with arms, legs, feet, and bodies elegantly placed in both principals and corps. The women’s backs are pliant, and their easy extensions, arabesques, and attitudes are never overextended. Their pointe work in brises (tiny steps in which the feet beat against one another) was not only academically clean and neat but also stylish and pretty.

The male complement is surprisingly strong, with fine ballon, elevation, and effortless light jumps–especially notable in tricky ensemble work, where the choreography demanded precise, nonunison timing. The men are also fine partners.

Victoria Mazzarelli, the opening night Lise, was enchanting–lithe, light, and elegant. Chris Jensen, her Colas, does not have an ideal romantic lead’s body, but he is an accomplished dancer, and their several pas de deux, choreographically individual in style, were much more complex and demanding than they made them look. Amanda Bennett and Charles Maple were leads the next night; they were equally accomplished, although she was a more subdued rebellious daughter.

The comic role of Alain, the doltish son, is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. In some versions he’s more involved with a butterfly net than a bride. In others he plays with an umbrella. In Spoerli’s version it’s a kite that arouses his passion. The role demands clever acting as well as skilled dancing, and Basel Ballet is lucky to have two dancers equal to the task. Maurice Choukrane, who danced the part on Thursday night, was gawkier and more obviously idiotic. Martin Schlapfer, in the Friday and Saturday night performances, had a little more trouble disguising his classic style. Both were fine technicians.

Lise’s mother, traditionally performed in drag, has an expanded role in Spoerli’s Fille. Oto Ris was a tough, testy mother, and he milked the part for even more than it was worth. He also did a fair amount of dancing–a solo on pointe as well as a folksy clog number. It was very funny, I admit, but a little too reminiscent of the Ballets Trockadero.

La fille mal gardee is fine family entertainment, a fine example of the comedy in an early semiclassical ballet, and a fine opportunity to see what Heinz Spoerli has achieved. I enjoyed it, but it is lightweight, and I regret that the company did not also perform a contemporary work of greater emotional power. Maybe next time.