La Fille mal gardée, ou La Précaution inutile

Ballet comique in three acts and four scenes
Music by Peter Ludwig Hertel
Libretto by Jean Dauberval and Paul Taglioni

 World Première
1st July 1789
Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux
Choreography by Jean Dauberval

Original 1789 Cast
Marie-Madeleine Crespé

Eugène Hus

Widow Ragotte
Francois Le Riche

Saint Petersburg Première
2nd October [O.S. 20th September] 1818
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Choreography by Charles Didelot

Première of Jean-Pierre Aumer’s staging
17th November 1828
Salle Le Peletier, Paris
Music by Ferdinand Hérold

Original 1828 Cast
Pauline Montessu

Première of Paul Taglioni’s staging
7th November 1864
Königliches Opernhaus, Berlin
Music by Peter Ludwig Hertel

Première of Petipa and Ivanov’s revival
28th December [O.S. 16th December] 1885
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Music by Peter Ludwig Hertel

Original 1885 Cast
Virginia Zucchi

Pavel Gerdt

Gusav Legat

In the French countryside, the rich farm owner, Widow Simone arranges with the rich farmer, Thomas for her daughter, Lise to marry his idiotic son, Alain. However, Lise is in love with the penniless farmer, Colas and the young couple must battle through all of Widow Simone’s obstacles so they can marry.

Le reprimande/Une jeune fille querelle par sa mere by Pierre Antonine Baudouin (1789)
Le réprimande/Une jeune fille querellée par sa mère by Pierre Antoine Baudouin (1789) – the painting that inspired La Fille mal gardée


La Fille mal gardée is the oldest of full length ballets and plays a vital role in the history of ballet’s evolution as an art form. After two centuries of the ballet de cour of the Royal French Court, new reforms were introduced to ballet in the 18th century, which saw the emergence of the ballet d’action, a new genre that brought together all of the requirements for a narrative ballet with a clear subject and characters that departed completely from the ballet de cour.

On the 1st July 1789, Jean Dauberval, a student of Jean-Georges Noverre, presented a new ballet entitled Le ballet de la paille, ou Il n’est qu’un pas du mal au bien (The Ballet of the Straw, or There is Only One Step from Bad to Good), which was later to become known as La Fille mal gardée, a new ballet d’action. The plot for the new ballet was inspired by Pierre Antoine Baudouin’s painting Le réprimande/Une jeune fille querellée par sa mère, which portrays a mother scolding her daughter for neglecting her chores, unaware that the girl’s lover is hiding in the background, scurrying up the stairs into the loft. The première performance of Le ballet de la paille, ou Il n’est qu’un pas du mal au bien was given at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux and was a great success. In regards to the music, the first production of La Fille mal gardée did not have its own score, since at the time, original ballet music scores did not exist. The original score of La Fille mal gardée was the standard type of score for ballet throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century – a pastiche of various music numbers borrowed from overtures, concertos, violin duos, sonatas, romances, barcarolles and operas.

Lithograph of Jean Dauberval (ca. 1790)
Lithograph of Jean Dauberval (ca. 1790)

Following its successful première in Bordeaux, Le ballet de la paille was presented in various different stagings and revivals throughout the late 18th century and the 19th century. The first revival was staged in London for the Ballet of the King’s Pantheon Theatre by Dauberval, where it premièred on the 30th April 1791. It was this staging that saw the ballet renamed as La Fille mal gardée. Eight years later, the ballet was again revived for the London stage by Dauberval’s student James D’Egville at the King’s Theatre in 1799. The ballet made its début at the Paris Opéra in 1803 in a revival of Dauberval’s version staged by Eugène Hus, the creator of the role of Colas. La Fille mal gardée made its début in Russia when it was staged in Moscow by Ballet Master, Giuseppe Solomoni for the Petrovsky Theatre in 1800. This production was later revived in 1808 by Solomoni’s successor Jean Lamiral with both productions using the original 1789 pastiche score. The ballet was later staged in Saint Petersburg for the first time in 1818 by Dauberval’s student, the renowned ballet master Charles Didelot, under the title La Précaution inutile, ou Lise et Colin (Vain Precaution, or Lise and Colin). Another of Dauberval’s students, Jean-Pierre Aumer revived Hus’s revival of La Fille mal gardée many times throughout his career at the Paris Opéra and introduced the ballet to Vienna in 1809.

Pavel Gert as Colas (1865)
Pavel Gerdt as Colin (1865)


Aumer and Hérold’s La Fille mal gardée
In 1828, Aumer staged a new version of La Fille mal gardée at the Paris Opéra to a new score by French composer, Ferdinand Hérold, which was an adaptation of the 1789 pastiche score. In 1837, Fanny Elssler made her début as Lise in Aumer’s 1828 production and for Elssler’s début, a new pas de deux that was added for her. For her new pas de deux, Elssler selected her favourite airs from Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore, which were arranged and orchestrated for her by the Opéra’s music librarian Aimé Leborne. A new production of the Aumer/Hérold version of La Fille mal gardée was staged in Russia at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow by Ballet Master Irakly Nikitin in 1845. In 1854, Jules Perrot staged his own version of Aumer’s La Fille mal gardée for the Saint Petersburg Imperial Ballet, with Cesare Pugni adding new music numbers. Perrot’s staging of La Fille mal gardée was performed for the final time in 1880 for the benefit performance of Pavel Gerdt.


Taglioni and Hertel’s Das schlecht bewachte Mädchen
In 1864, Paul Taglioni, son of Filippo Taglioni and brother of Marie Taglioni, presented a brand new version of La Fille mal gardée for the Court Opera Ballet of the Königliches Opernhaus in Berlin, where he was engaged as Ballet Master. This new staging was set to a completely new score by German composer, Peter Ludwig Hertel, who was the resident composer of the Königliches Opernhaus at the time. Taglioni and Hertel’s La Fille mal gardée premièred on the 7th November 1864, under the title Das schlecht bewachte Mädchen (The Badly Guarded Girl), and was a renowned success.

Virginia Zucchi as Lise (1885)
Virginia Zucchi as Lise in Petipa and Ivanov’s revival of La Fille mal gardée (1885)


Petipa and Ivanov’s La Précaution inutile
In 1876, the great Italian Prima Ballerina Virginia Zucchi made her début in Taglioni and Hertel’s La Fille mal gardée in Berlin during her tours across Europe. In 1885, the ballerina was invited on the request of Tsar Alexander III to dance with the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg and for her Imperial Theatre début, Zucchi requested to dance in the Taglioni/Hertel version of La Fille mal gardée. This request required Ivan Vsevolozhsky to pay an expensive price to bring Hertel’s score from Berlin. This new staging of La Fille mal gardée saw the first collaboration between Petipa and Lev Ivanov on the staging of a new full length production. Zucchi also assisted in the staging by introducing some of the dances she had known from Taglioni’s production. However, Zucchi’s début role with the Imperial Ballet was changed at the last minute to the role of Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter after the Imperial Ballet’s native Prima Ballerina Eugenia Sokolova injured her leg.

Petipa and Ivanov’s revival of La Fille mal gardée was premièred on the 28th December [O.S. 16th December] 1885, under the traditional Russian title La Précaution inutile (Vain Precaution), at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, which had recently become the Imperial Ballet’s new home. The ballet was a huge success, especially due to the performance of Zucchi. Virginia Zucchi’s performances as Lise received huge praise, becoming legendary, and she was especially celebrated for her performances of the Pas de ruban of the first act and the famous mime scene “When I’m Married” of the third act. In fact, contemporary accounts state that her performance of the “When I’m Married” mime scene was so moving that she brought the audience to tears. Following Zucchi’s departure from Russia in 1887, Ivanov staged an abridged version of La Fille mal gardée on two occasions – at the Imperial Theatre of Krasnoe Selo in the summer of 1888 and at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre that same year. In 1894, he revived the full-length ballet for the visiting German Prima Ballerina Hedwige Hantenbürg, after which the ballet found a permanent place in the Imperial Ballet repertoire. The role of Lise became a favourite among many of the Imperial Ballet’s great ballerinas, including Anna Pavlova, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Tamara Karsavina and Matilda Kschessinskaya.

Petipa and Ivanov’s La Fille mal gardée was performed for the final time by the Imperial Ballet on the 10th October [O.S. 27th September] 1917, one month prior to the Russian Revolution. The ballet was notated in the Stepanov notation method between 1903 and 1906 and is part of the Sergeyev Collection.

Grigory Riabtzev as Widow Simone, Mikhail Mordkin as Colas and Sofia Fedorova as Lise (1899)
Grigory Riabtzev as Widow Simone, Mikhail Mordkin as Colas and Sofia Fedorova as Lise (1899)


La Fille mal gardée in the 20th Century
In 1903, Alexander Gorsky staged his own revival of La Fille mal gardée for the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Ballet that was based on Petipa and Ivanov’s staging. For his production, Gorsky used many additional music numbers with Hertel’s score, including pieces by Riccardo Drigo, Léo Delibes, Cesare Pugni, Ludwig Minkus and Anton Rubenstein. There was even one occasion when he staged the entire third act to music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Gorsky’s revival provided a foundation for revivals of La Fille mal gardée throughout the Soviet era. The first Soviet staging of the ballet was by the choreographers Asaf Messerer and Igor Moiseyev for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1930, which included a new act entitled The Wedding of Lise and Colas to an arrangement of music taken from Mikhail Glinka’s opera Orpheus. However, this production was not a success and was dropped from the Bolshoi repertoire two years later when a revival of the production failed to bring any success. The Bolshoi Ballet made another case for La Fille mal gardée when Leonid Lavrovsky staged a new version in 1937. For this production, Lavrovsky commissioned the composer Pavel Feldt to create a new score based on the traditional music of Hertel, which included all of the interpolated music the score acquired via Gorsky’s revival. However, just like Messerer and Moiseyev’s staging, Lavrovsky’s production was not successful and was dropped from the Bolshoi repertoire after only eleven performances. Before Vikharev’s reconstruction, Russia had previously seen a production of La Fille mal gardée that used Hertel’s music when the former Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet director, Oleg Vinogradov staged a new production for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet in 1989. This production was largely based on the Petipa/Ivanov staging and Gorsky’s 1903 revival and was a huge success. However, the production was dropped from the Mariinsky repertoire shortly after Vinogradov’s dismissal from the company in 1995.

Nikolai Legat as Colas and Anna Pavlova as Lise (1909)
Nikolai Legat as Colas and Anna Pavlova as Lise (1909)


Petipa and Ivanov’s La Fille mal gardée was first introduced to the west by a troupe of Imperial Ballet dancers led by Nikolai Legat, Alexander Shiryaev and Anna Pavlova during their 1909 tour of Germany. The troupe performed an abridgement of the ballet in Berlin on the 10th May 1909 with Pavlova as Lise and Legat as Colas. Pavlova later added a new abridgement of Hertel’s La Fille mal gardée, choreographed by Ivan Clustine, to her company’s repertoire, which she first performed in London in 1912 and went onto dance many times across the world. Many other versions based on the Petipa/Ivanov and Gorsky productions were staged in the West throughout the 20th century. The first production of the Petipa/Ivanov/Gorsky version to be staged in America was by Bronislava Nijinska, who staged the ballet for Ballet Theatre (now, American Ballet Theatre) in 1940. Nijinska’s production was revived in 1941 under the title The Wayward Daughter and 1942 under the title Naughty Lisette. In 1949, the 1942 production was revived by Dmitri Romanov and remained in the Ballet Theatre repertoire for many years. In 1972, Romanov returned to American Ballet Theatre to stage a new version of Hertel’s La Fille mal gardée for the company, with Natalia Makarova dancing the role of Lise. The Romanov production proved to be a popular member of the ABT repertoire, where it remained until 1984.

Today, the most famous and popular version of La Fille mal gardée is Sir Frederick Ashton’s production, choreographed and staged for the Royal Ballet in 1960. Ashton was first introduced to La Fille mal gardée by Tamara Karsavina, who also taught him the When I’m Married mime scene. The music for Ashton’s production is the original 1789 pastiche score that was resurrected by dance historian, Ivor Guest and arranged by Sir John Lanchberry. The score also uses the famous Clog Dance from Hertel’s score and the 1837 Fanny Elssler Pas de deux. Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée premièred on the 28th January 1960 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with Nadia Nerina as Lise, David Blair as Colas and Alexander Grant as Alain. The ballet was a huge success and today, it remains one of the most popular members of the repertoires of various companies across the world.

In 2015, Sergei Vikharev mounted a reconstruction of the Petipa/Ivanov revival of La Fille mal gardée for the State Ballet of Ekaterinburg. The reconstruction premièred on the 15th May 2015 at the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Nadia Nerina as Lise and David Blair as Colas in Ashton's La Fille mal gardée (1960)
Nadia Nerina as Lise and David Blair as Colas in Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée (1960)


The Chicken Incident of 1905

La Fille mal gardée was a favourite ballet of Matilda Kschessinskaya, so much so that for a number of years, she refused to allow other ballerinas to dance the role of Lise. Eventually, however, her control over the role began to disintegrate and, much to her dismay, it was given to her rival, Olga Preobrazhenskaya in 1905. A famous theatre legend says that Kschessinskaya would not let this matter go lightly and concocted a plan to sabotage Preobrazhenskaya’s début performance. One feature of the Petipa/Ivanov staging of La Fille mal gardée was the use of real chickens in a chicken coop as part of the décor of the farmyard scene in the first act. According to the story, on the night of Preobrazhenskaya’s début as Lise, Kschessinskaya bribed a stagehand to let the doors of the chicken coop open before Preobrazhenskaya’s variation in the Pas de ruban. As soon as the music for the variation started, the chickens went flying everywhere across the stage, with some flying into the orchestra pit and landing on some of the orchestra members. But if this was a scheme, it backfired, for Preobrazhenskaya danced her variation uninterrupted from start to finish as if nothing had even happened, receiving a storm of applause from the audience, much to Kschessinskaya’s chagrin.

Olga Preobrazhenzkaya as Lise (ca. 1905)
Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Lise (ca. 1905)


“La Fille mal gardée Pas de deux”

One very famous passage that is associated today with the Imperial Ballet production of La Fille mal gardée is the so-called La Fille mal gardée Pas de deux, which is a popular member of the gala and competition circuit. However, contrary to popular belief, this pas de deux was not created by Petipa or Ivanov. It was, in fact, created by Gorksy for his 1903 revival, though the version that is danced today is a Soviet revival of Gorsky’s original version, possibly by Pyotr Gusev from the 1930s. The music numbers that are used are by Alphons Czibulka, Riccardo Drigo and Johann Armsheimer:

  • Adage – taken from the Austrian Valse from Czibulka’s Scène de Ballet
  • Male variation – also taken from the Austrian Valse from Czibulka’s Scène de Ballet
  • Female variation – a supplemental coda composed by Drigo for Alexander Shiryaev’s 1903 revival of Ivanov’s 1887 ballet The Haarlem Tulip
  • Coda – a general gallop by Armsheimer from Petipa’s 1896 ballet The Cavalry Halt
Anna Pavlova as Lise (1912)
Anna Pavlova as Lise (1909)


  • Guest, Ivor (1960) La Fille mal gardée: History of the Ballet. The Dancing Times Ltd
  • Guest, Ivor and Lanchbery, John. The Score of La Fille mal gardée. Published in Theatre Research, Vol. III, No. 3, 1961
  • Guest, Ivor (1977) The Divine Virgina: A Biography of Virginia Zucchi. New York, US: Marcel Dekker, Inc.
  • Kschessinskaya, Matilda, H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky (1960) Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd
  • Pritchard, Jane with Hamilton, Caroline (2012) Anna Pavlova: Twentieth-Century Ballerina. London, UK: Booth-Clibborn Editions
  • Guest, Ivor. CD Liner Notes. Ferdinand Hérold. La Fille mal gardée – Excerpts. John Lanchbery Cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. CD Decca 430,196–2
  • Mariinsky Ballet: Theatre Program for La Fille mal gardée. Mariinsky Theatre, January 1994.
  • Royal Ballet: Theatre Program for La Fille mal gardée. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, February 1978 and January 1998.
  • Jonathan Still, ballet pianist – La Fille mal Gardée: the Gorsky pas de deux

Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.