For Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri, the full-length ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton known as "La Fille Mal Gardée" ("The Wayward Daughter") is more than just the latest addition to the Sarasota Ballet repertoire.
It is a link to history, an intimation of the company's future and a trip down memory lane.
Ashton's 1960 production of the comic ballet about a young girl named Lise who pursues a farmer named Colas despite her widowed mother's intentions for her to marry Alain, the simple-minded son of a wealthy vinyard owner, has become the definitive version of a ballet more than two centuries old.
Based on a 1789 painting by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin and first choreographed by Jean Dauberval, it is considered one of the oldest ballets to endure without significant interruption, albeit with many changes in score, title and choreography over the years.
It also represents a significant step forward for the local company which, until recently, had neither the financial stability nor sufficient dancers for such a large-scale production.
The introduction of several of Ashton's ballets to the repertoire since Webb's arrival in 2007 has earned the Sarasota Ballet recognition as a foremost interpreter of the choreographer's work and paved the way for potential touring options. The first of these will come in June when the company — one of nine regional troupes invited to participate in the PBS series "Dance Across America" — will present Ashton's "Les Patineurs" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
During their careers with the Sadler's Wells and Royal Ballets, both Webb and Barbieri — now artistic director and assistant artistic director of the Sarasota Ballet respectively — performed countless times and multiple roles in the ballet they refer to simply as "Fille."
Both received direct coaching from Ashton himself, as well as from some of the storied dancers who originated roles in the British version, including Nadia Nerina (as Lise), like Barbieri a native of South Africa, and Alexander Grant (as Alain), who visited Sarasota before his death in 2010 to stage Ashton's "Facade."
For Barbieri, "Fille" represented a departure from her usual typecasting as a Romantic ballerina in traditional works like "Giselle" and "Swan Lake." She danced all the female roles in the ballet, moving up gradually from being a peasant and a friend to Lise, to eventually playing the female lead with partners such as Carl My`ers and David Ashmole.
"I still remember to this day hearing when everyone laughed at me and I thought, 'Oh look! I can be funny!'" she says. "This was a new thing for me and really enjoyable."
Webb remembers seeing the ballet for the first time at Covent Garden when he was a student at the Rambert School who believed he had little chance of making it as a classical dancer. Like the other members of the "Floral Street gang" of aspirants and aficionados, he would line up outside the theater on Floral Street and wait for a ticket to stand "in the back of the stalls" (the rear of the theater).
"I remember it was Nureyev as Colas and when he comes in, joking with his friends at the beginning of the ballet, he was just larger than life," Webb says.
After joining the Royal Ballet School, Webb's first role in the ballet was as a "s***-shoveler," one of two non-dancers who follow the live pony in the production with a broom and pan in case of an accident.
"And if he does a No. 1 you're meant to take off your neckerchief and wipe it up," Webb grimaces.
Gradually he also worked his way up, dancing roles as a peasant, the cockerel (a rooster who dances a famous variation with several hens in Act I), Colas and eventually Alain.
He even earned Ashton's praise for an unintentional innovation. Act II calls for Colas to perform two pas de deux and a solo before culminating with a one-handed lift of Lise overhead. So exhausted was Webb by the end of the act, he closed his eyes with the exertion of the lift and ended up facing the rear of the stage. On the final note of music, he managed to turn front triumphantly.
"Afterward Sir Fred said to me, 'If I'd asked you to do it that way, you never could have done it, but it was quite wonderful really,'" Webb recalls.
Though full of humor and pantomime, the ballet is deceptively difficult, say both Barbieri and Webb. Even with the largely character role of Lise's mother, Widow Simone (always danced by a male in drag), there are special demands.
"It can't be so over the top that it becomes unreal," Barbieri says. "These are real people and they have got to seem natural and unforced."
"What's important is that it doesn't become a ballet of caricatures, but of characters," adds Webb. "Alain is not an idiot and if you play him like that, it's offensive."
There are also several variations in the ballet that present unusual challenges. The famous clog dance, in which dancers perform "on pointe" wearing wooden shoes, is one; the pas du ruban ("ribbon dance") is another. Not only do the corps dancers have to navigate complex weavings around a May pole that can easily end in knots, Lise and Colas perform a complicated cat's cradle pas de deux with a loop of ribbon around their bodies that offers ripe potential for disaster.
"Luckily for me, in every performance it worked, but that was always a real pressure," says Barbieri.
She refused to speak, however, about any problems she or her castmates encountered during performances. In addition to the unpredictability of the live pony, the ballet has dozens of props requiring manual dexterity while dancing.
"No, no, we won't speak of that," she says brusquely. "That would be tempting fate."
Even assembling and placing all the props has been a considerable job for Mark Noble, stage manager, and Jeff Ellis, production manager. The entire production — sets, backdrop, furniture, costumes and three enormous hampers full of small hand props, like fake French bread, candlesticks and a (used) dustpan for following the pony — has been rented from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, which sent everything overseas in huge cartons (at considerable expense). The company is also sending its scenic manager, Doug Nicholson, to Sarasota to make sure everything is placed correctly.
"It's challenging," says Ellis. "The only other ballet that's been as complex as this was the new Nutcracker, but there are far more props for this that the dancers actually have to handle."
A stickler for historical accuracy, Webb is insistent that everything should be as he recalls from his own performing days. Several months ago he sent Ellis a picture of the pony used in the Royal production along with a firm command.
"He said, 'You have to find this pony,'" Ellis says, "'and only this pony. Nothing else will do.'"
Fortunately, through a stage hand who knew the Rosaire family — former circus entertainers, one of whom now runs a riding academy — Ellis was able to locate "the exact pony." Actually, according to owner Ellian Rosaire, "Silver" is not a pony but a miniature horse and not white (as requested) but a palomino.
"But he's a real actor," Rosaire says. "I body-clipped him so he'll look the part."
Webb also insisted on live music, as did Alexander Grant, who inherited the ballet from Ashton and bequeathed it to his partner of 65 years, Jean-Pierre Gasquet upon his death. The Sarasota Orchestra will play, led by Ormsby Wilkins, principal conductor for American Ballet Theatre in New York. Webb also brought Gasquet over from London for the local premiere "because of his memories."
"The ballet means a lot to him," adds Barbieri.
Getting it right means a great deal to Webb and Barbieri, who have been working on the staging of the piece since last September, obsessing over every detail while trying not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
"The storytelling is important," Barbieri says. "It has got to make theatrical sense and it's essential you get the right message across."
Though it has been a tremendous undertaking for a mere three performances, the couple express no regrets. Everyone loves "Fille," they say, from small children ("though it's not just for children," Barbieri quickly adds) to reluctant boyfriends ("I can guarantee to all the wives and mothers that if they buy tickets for this ballet, they will win their men over," says Webb).
Even Webb's father, who generally stayed away from his son's performances, "sort of enjoyed this one," the director says. So did Barbieri's older brother.
"He saw me in 'Giselle' 'Swan Lake' and it was" — she dons a bored expression — 'Oh yes, very nice.' But when he saw 'Fille,' he said, 'Now this is the kind of ballet I like.'"
LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE (THE WAYWARD DAUGHTER), Sarasota Ballet, choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton. 8 p.m. April 18, 2 and 8 p.m. April 19. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. $10-$90. 359-0099, Ext. 101; www.sarasotaballet.org.