On July 6, 1960, Pas de Dieux opened at the Paris Opera. It was the only ballet ever written by Gene Kelly, to music by George Gershwin (Piano Concerto in F), and it was touted as the first ever ‘jazz ballet’. And, best of all from our point of view, it features a spanking scene!
The title is one that really loses in translation: it has been rendered into English as ‘Dance of the Gods’, but it could also mean ‘Not Gods’, which would be apt in view of how the plot develops; and it also contains a pun on the standard ballet term for a two-person dance sequence, the pas de deux.
The story draws loosely on Greek mythology. In this version, Aphrodite, goddess of love, is the bored wife of Zeus, the god of thunder. She plays around with Eros, who has the power to command instant infatuation with his arrows, and together they go to the South of France, where they use the arrows to ensnare an attractive young lifeguard and his girl. The upshot is a mismatched foursome, two humans and two gods. At the end of the first act, Zeus comes looking for Aphrodite, and uses his powers to intervene in the situation with a thunderbolt. It hits Aphrodite on the rear, which must be the most unconventional smacked bottom in theatrical history, and nicely foreshadows what is to come…
The second act opens with the foursome in bed. Zeus sets everything to rights so that the human couple are back together, but Aphrodite is offended and goes off to a nightclub with another man. Zeus takes on human form and follows them. He disposes of the interloper, causing Aphrodite to fall for him, not knowing his identity. And here we’ll let Gene Kelly himself tell the story:
‘Aphrodite goes for Zeus in a big way and starts putting on her charms. Then at the last minute, just as he pretends he is under her spell, Zeus whips her across his knee and gives her a spanking…
… revealing himself as the honorable husband he is.’
And so marital harmony is restored.
The original Paris Opera production featured Attilio Labis as Zeus and prima ballerina Claude Bessy as Aphrodite. Here she is working with Gene Kelly a year earlier:
Don’t you just wish he were more of a gentleman about where it’s permissible to hit a lady… especially when she’s wearing those pants? But maybe he thought that too, because he devised the part of Aphrodite, including the spanking, specifically for her. Here they are rehearsing the show:
Here’s the nightclub scene itself:
Here’s the spanking, with her skirt flipped up:
And here’s Gene Kelly with the cast taking one of the 23 curtain calls the ballet received on its first night:
Yes, the ballet was a phenomenal success, and has been intermittently revived ever since, including a production by the San Francisco Ballet in 1982. Claude Bessy danced Aphrodite again in 1975, and as recently as April 2011 she revived the ballet in Nice, with Sophie Benoit as Aphrodite. Here’s Sophie in the nightclub scene:
In fact, Pas de Dieux became so closely associated with Claude Bessy that, when she retired from the Paris Opera in 2004, an extract from it was included in the gala performance staged in her honor. Zeus was danced by Karl Paquette and Aphrodite by Eleonora Abbagnato. And the extract chosen was, happily, the nightclub scene. Even more happily, it was filmed:
One of the attractive things about ballet spankings is that you usually get good leg-work from the girl. In this case you also get nice, clear slaps courtesy of the guy.
Gene Kelly flew to Paris to devise Pas de Dieux in February 1960. It is a pleasing coincidence that only weeks before, on January 28, the London Royal Ballet had premiered its own spanking ballet: the Frederick Ashton version of La Fille Mal Gardee!
Update: In 2016, the Nice production was recorded, in a performance featuring Claude Gamba and Gaela Pujol. The spanking was present and correct:
Acknowledgement: Thanks to ‘maitrefesseur’ for finding the 2016 recording!