"Wanna risk it?"
Not my usual sales-pitch when inviting a friend to come and see a show with me, but I was putting a lot of faith in the theatre gods to deliver on this one. At first glance, it was an enticing prospect: a crowd-pleasing ballet (Fille mal gardée), an easy to get to theatre (New Wimbledon), and the prospect of cake with a local (Ellen), but once the local quickly made it known that she would in no way consider attending, it soon became clear that we were into Tom Cruise levels of risky business here.
The ballet may have been Fille, but it was the Gorsky not the Ashton version, and it was being performed by one of those Russian-touring companies that have such a grandiose name you figure they must be fairly fancy, until you realise that fancy-companies don't tend to spend quite so much time on the regional-theatre circuit. And then there was the matter of the theatre. Or rather, its seat map.
Less than a week before the performance and the New Wimbledon's seating plan had more brightly-coloured dots than a Cath Kidson outlet sale. With each dot corresponding to an unsold seat, there was a good chance that this was a house that was going to need some serious box office-manoeuvres to make it look presentable come curtain-up. And I was willing to place a bet on it.
I told Helen my plan. We'd buy the cheapest possible seats, up in the upper circle. With so few seats sold up there, chances are they wouldn't want to have to staff it on the night, the upper circle would be closed, and we'd be upgraded.
"Yeah let's gamble!" came the immediate reply.
The game was on.
I scoured the seating plan and picked our seats - right on the end of the row, restricted view. Terrible, awful seats.
This better not go wrong, was all I could think as I keyed in my card details. Or Helen was going to kill me.
Over matcha crepes at Cafe Mori, Ellen wished us luck for our "Grim Fille."
"Message me in the interval," she ordered, with an evil glint in her eye, a little too pleased to not be going with us.
She must have already seen the posters.
"What even is that?" I asked Helen as we neared the theatre.
It was a ballerina. En pointe. Wearing a familiar looking white tutu.
"Swan Lake," we both said at the same time.
"Are they even performing Swan Lake?"
I scanned the poster. No. They weren't.
What they were doing apparently, was sticking a pink background on a random ballet image and hoping that no one would notice.
This was not a good sign. It wasn't even a good poster.
Oh well, there was no backing out now.
We forged on to the box office.
"The upper circle is closed," said the woman behind the counter as she inspected them. "Let me get your new seat numbers."
I gave Helen my best smug face.
"Right," said the box office lady as she scrawled our new seats on the tickets. "You're in the dress circle."
We were in the fucking dress circle!
Pink Swan Lake posters or no, things were looking up.
Now, let's just freeze-frame for a moment on that smug face of mine. There's something I need to explain so that you'll understand the significance of everything that follows, something very important. And that is: I love Fille.
I really love Fille.
I cannot emphasis that enough.
If you take anything away from this post it should be this: I love Fille.
I love the music. The costumes. The dancing. The characters. The pony.
And I love the love.
Not just the young love of Colas and Lise, but the love between Lise and her mum, the Widow Simone. And the love between Farmer Thomas and his son Alain (oh, when Thomas strokes Alain's hair, soothing the poor lad after he fails to get the girl... my heart), the burgeoning, and slightly knowing relationship between Simone and Thomas. And of course, the love of Alain for his umbrella.
No one leaves the stage without a happy ending. That is Ashton's gift to the audience. He ties a shiny pink bow on everyone's story and sends them out holding hands and singing into the night.
When the opening notes of Gorsky's Fille sounded up from the pit, both Helen and I jolted in our seats. We turned to each other with panicked looks. These were not the gentle tones of the Ashton, conjuring up a slow sunrise over rolling hills, yawning milkmaids picking hay out of their hair while the stableboy tries to find his britches.
"That sounds sinister," I hissed at Helen under my breath.
She nodded back.
The world this music was conjuring was one where the forces of Big Dairy meant that the milkmaids were all out of a job, while the stableboys had been requisitioned to help the army tend the fires after the latest Foot and Mouth outbreak.
If the music of the overture was wrong, the oeufs were even wronger. Lise fetching eggs from the hen house? No! She should be working the butterchurn. How else was the choreographer going to fit in a knob joke into the first act?
It was then that I finally began to understand why Ashton's Fille is considered so quintessentially English. The Russians weren't going to have any knob jokes in their version. Not a single one.
Worse still, the role of Widow Simone is danced by an actual woman and not a man in a padded dress.
I spent the entire ballet giggling and gasping in fascinated horror. Like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting, I could spot the recognisable bits, but it was jumbled up - all in the wrong order, to the wrong music, and being done by the wrong characters.
"Alain catching the butterfly," we gasped as we jogged through the snow on our way to the station. "That was Lise pretending to catch the fly!"
"And Lise stubbing her toe when she kicks the door-"
"That's her mum hurting her foot on the butter churn!"
"And the hobby horse being thrown around was the flute!"
"Which makes so much more sense!"
"Yeah, where did the hobby horse even come from?"
"At least a flute at a harvest festival has a reason to be there."
"And the circles in the rain, became the maypole!"
"Oh my god, yes!"
"Ashton was like - if they want circles, I'll show them circles!"
"And he gave us a real pony!"
"For which we are eternally grateful."
"Ashton was a genius.
"Ashton was a genius."
"What vision - to turn that mess into..."
"He was a genius."
"He was a genius."
"He was a dramaturge."
"He made an actual story. With characters. I've never realised how deep they all were until..."
"That whole thing with Colas getting the Village Notary drunk and stealing his clothes..."
"Because it means that we know he's seeing Lise's fantasy about having kids with him."
"Yes! Ashton hides him from her and from us."
"So when he reveals himself-"
"-we feel her embarrassment too!"
"It's a double-hitter - the joke, then the blushes. Here it's all joke."
"And oh my god, the When We Are Married mime!"
"It was all there-"
"-but all wrong!"
"Ashton was such a genius."
"Such a fucking genius."
At some point during all this we had managed to board a train.
"I wish I could have met him," I said, as I plonked myself down in a seat.
Helen looked shocked. I never want to meet anyone.
"I just want to hear him talk about... his process. How he took that and turned it into..." I touched my lashes. "I feel a bit emotional about him."
"Oh my god, you really do," said Helen, laughing at my tearing eyes.
I really was. I sniffed and tried to hold it together.
"This changes everything. I will never be able to watch Ashton in the same way again."
"People bang on about MacMillan being the great storyteller, but Ashton..."
"Fuck. Yes. Fucking. Ashton!"
"When MacMillan did Romeo and Juliet... the story was there!"
"Yeah, Ashton had to strip it all back and start again!"
"He took tiny moments and created a complete world!"
"He totally changed the relationship between Lise and her mother. Like... making them spin wool together, it's funny, but also, that's how you know they love each other. Her mum tapping the beat on the tambourine-"
"-the one from the first act."
"Yes, exactly. Thank you. He took the pointless act one tambourine-"
"-that added nothing to the storyline."
"Less than nothing. He took it, and transformed it, and built it up. This is something they've done a thousand times before. Mum making music for her daughter to dance around to."
"So she's not just marrying off her daughter for money. She wants her to be happy. She wants a secure marriage. Not to the lad who has probably been chasing her chickens round the yard since he was a toddler."
"Exactly. So when she finally comes round and approves the match-"
"It actually means something."
"Ashton was such a fucking genius."
"He was fucking ballsy. He was like - those Italian fouettes? My Lise doesn't need them."
"Their dancing is all about the characters."
"It's not about the virtuosity."
"It's about the story."
"Wait, is this you?" I said, looking up to see what station we were in.
Helen jumped off the train. A second later, she stuck her head back through the door. "Aren't you supposed to be changing here too?"
The doors closed. The train moved on.
I was supposed to have been changing there.
Still... fucking Ashton.
I can't get over it.