The Fille Files: Nadia Nerina

For this second installment of our series on La Fille Mal Gardée, the ballet with a spanking scene, we go back to the beginning. The first dancer to take the role of Lise in the Frederick Ashton choreography was Nadia Nerina: Ashton devised the part specifically for her.

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The ballet had its premiere on January 28, 1960, and the following year Nerina took it on a tour of Soviet Russia, with performances in Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg). Remembering these performances a decade and a half later, Natalya Roslaveva enthused that Ashton could not have achieved his masterpiece ‘without the brilliance of Nerina’s special talent’. It remained the role most associated with her. When she retired at the beginning of 1969, the Sunday Times ballet critic Richard Buckle wrote in tribute, ‘To have seen her mime and dance Lise is to have realized what joy ballet can give.’

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Nadia Nerina was a South African whose real name was Nadine Judd. (In creating her stage name, she Russianized her own first name and took her mother’s as a surname.) Ashton had spotted her talent early and began choreographing new roles for her, starting with the Spring Fairy in his Cinderella (1948). In the 1954 production of Coppélia, with Ashton himself as Dr Coppélius, she gave a standout performance as Swanilda, a part often thought similar to Lise, though not, as we shall see, by Nerina herself. And then, in the autumn of 1959, Ashton decided to do a new adaptation of La Fille Mal Gardée, and history was made.

The ballet took only six weeks to create, in a close collaboration between Ashton and his principal dancers. But there was one significant change during the rehearsal period. Ashton’s original casting for the role of Widow Simone was Robert Helpmann, whom we have already met spanking Katharine Hepburn in a 1955 production of The Taming of the Shrew. But Helpmann didn’t care for the role, and withdrew from the project: ‘It’s not really me,’ he said. ‘All I do is scold my daughter.’ So Ashton turned to a much younger dancer: Stanley Holden, nineteen years Helpmann’s junior and a man who could be relied upon not to ‘camp it up’.

For Nerina, the only misstep during rehearsals had to do with costume design: Osbert Lancaster originally presented her with stiff dresses colored in brilliant reds and greens, the type of costume often associated with Swanilda in Coppélia:


The designs brought Nerina to tears: ‘I felt I could not interpret the character of Lise in these very sharp colours – she should wear pastel shades, soft blues and pinks.’ So she sketched her own ideas for Lancaster to follow. And that means it’s probably because of Nerina that Lise is usually a white panty girl!

Ashton’s initial conception of Lise was very straightforward: at the first rehearsal, he told Nerina simply, ‘She’s a pretty village girl.’ After dancing her for years, Nerina herself had a very clear and precise understanding of the character:

‘I always thought of Lise as a girl with a distinct personality. She is most endearing, with a delicious and inventive sense of humour; she is immensely fond of her mother, but slightly independent; she is young, and perhaps child-like, yet there is an innate maturity and good sense about her. In her famous mime scene she dreams of the joy of having children and understands what marriage will mean. But her character is quite unlike Swanilda in Coppélia: she, too, has a sense of fun, but she is forward, mischievous, naughty, and although she has a brittle charm, she is heartless in her teasing of Dr Coppélius – she needs a good spanking. Lise is gentle in her fun, in a very feminine way. If you listen to the music for Fille, Lise’s melodies are just like her: light, lyrical, warm, tender.’

Not everyone would agree with this. For a start, as I’ve already mentioned, Lise and Swanilda are often thought to be very similar characters – and if Swanilda needs a good spanking, then so does Lise. The subject is directly addressed in this modern review by Rob Maynard:

‘There is some surprisingly effective acting going on, as well as the dancing. Nadia Nerina is very adept at conveying convincing emotions. Her interpretation of Lise – less sugary-sweet and more of a rather naughty, spoiled brat who’s deservedly spanked on several occasions during the course of the story – is a very compelling one.’

And the quality of the acting performance was central to her, and the ballet’s, enormous success. Writing in 1961, the Leningrad critic Vera Krasovskaya commented,

‘Her coquetry is so artlessly naive, her joy and sorrows so open-hearted. It looks as if the pranks of Lise-Nerina are born on the spot, and that the sun smiles through a cloud when Lise, who had just been spanked by her mother, plots new mischief, smiling through her tears.’

(Despite the English translation, I think this must actually refer to the smacking rather than the spanking.)

With this at the forefront, it is now worth addressing the delicate question of maturity: not Nerina’s technical maturity as a dancer, which the role requires, but her physical maturity as a woman. When she first danced the role of Lise she was 32 years old, already nearly two-thirds of the way through her 23-year career, and had herself been married since 1955; at the time of the surviving recording, from the end of 1962, she was 35.

‘The choreography demands that Lise should be very young,’ noted Ballet Today in 1963; ‘at times her mother even spanks her, as if she were a small child.’ (To which it is worth adding that the story demands that Lise is old enough to marry.) But nevertheless the role is often given to a younger principal dancer: the alternate Lise in the 1960 production, who danced (and was spanked) in the second performance and later took the role into the Royal Ballet touring company, was Doreen Wells, who was ten years younger than Nerina.

Doreen Wells

In contrast, Nerina was actually three months older than Stanley Holden, playing her mother. In the theater, that doesn’t matter: there have been productions of The Seagull where the actor playing Konstantin was older than Arkadina, his mother, just as there have been productions of Romeo and Juliet where, offstage, Romeo was much more interested in getting off with Mercutio than with Juliet, but skilled acting performances make such realities irrelevant. On the stage, Nerina’s Lise was young and coquettish, whatever her own age and personality off it. But it is something we need to bear in mind when we look at the surviving visual record of her performance: theater acting is seen at long range, but photography and television often work in close-up, and the camera’s eye may be less forgiving than a pair of opera glasses.

In January 1960, during the rehearsal period, Life magazine sent its photographer Gjon Mili to shoot a spread about the new Ashton ballet. What he shot was a staged selection of scenes rather than a full performance, so his pictures tell us what Ashton and his cast thought was important, rather than necessarily what happened in performance a few weeks later. And the first thing they tell us is easily overlooked. Mili took just 31 shots during the session, and two of them were of the spanking scene. This was evidently deemed to be a significant feature of the ballet, alongside the chickens, the ribbon dance, the pas de deux and the clog dance – not something to be ignored in apparent embarrassment as it is today by some ballet companies and their publicists.

Now let’s look at the two photographs themselves.

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Several things emerge from them. Firstly, Lise is actually being spanked. Simone’s hand is in motion. Lise is reacting: we can see her open-mouthed shock in the first photo, and her pained expression in the second. The ‘saved by the bell’ interpretation, where Simone aborts the spanking before the first smack lands, was not the original conception of the scene.

Secondly, Farmer Thomas and Alain are already there in the background, unbeknown to either Simone or Lise. They aren’t just there as a get-out clause to save the ballerina’s bottom: part of the core of Ashton’s idea is the embarrassment, for all concerned, of having the spanking witnessed.

We can get a fuller appreciation of the ballet in its early state from watching the surviving recording, which was broadcast by the BBC on December 27, 1962, and is now available on DVD. This features the original cast, including Nerina and Holden; but it is not just a film of what happened one night onstage at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Ashton and the cast worked with the director, former dancer Margaret Dale, to completely reimagine the performance for the medium of television, in the spirit of the theatrical original, and the performance was then broadcast live from Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Thankfully the BBC’s engineers had the good sense to make a recording as it went out, so we can now enjoy the whole performance, even though what was state of the art in 1962 is a very low definition picture by modern standards.

But of course, for our particular purposes we’re going to look at the two scenes that most interest us, starting with the smacking. It is striking how unlike most later interpretations this is. We’re used to seeing Lise react to each slap on her bottom by springing into the air, but Nerina and Holden do something rather different. Simone smacks her bottom once, and she jumps, but forwards rather than up. Her mother pulls her back, bends her forward, holding her by the shoulder, smacks her again, and she jumps again. And then the sequence is repeated for a third smack.

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This is a lot more precisely defined than the business later became. It is, in fact, a smacking that is already well on the way to achieving the formality and repetition of a spanking.

Now we turn to the spanking itself, which in this version lacks some of the exciting elaborations that would later be introduced to the buildup, but makes up for that in its complete clarity about the logic of the sequence of events, the way Lise’s every action closes the trap on her in ever more specific terms.

From the first it is explicitly established what is at risk. Lise has been set to churn the butter, and when her friends come to ask her to play, she does the ‘spanking mime’ also seen in the 2014 St Petersburg production, though often omitted by other Lises. She is telling them, ‘I can’t dance with you, my mother is in there and if she catches me slacking, she’ll spank me.’

In Nerina’s performance, the operative word is spank. Whereas in 2014 the Russian girls gave a series of little smacks to the side of their hips, the closest they could get to their bottoms whilst remaining seated, Nerina’s Lise sits as if she is her mother and spanks her invisible self across her own lap:

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She knows that, if she leaves her task, she won’t get just a smack – it will be a full-scale OTK spanking. When her friends pull her from her work, she’s clearly reluctant and yet also unhappy not to be free to play because she’s desperately bored by the butter churning. And then she gets caught up in the gaiety of their dancing, and her fate is sealed…

Let’s re-emphasize it: Lise knows that getting caught will mean getting spanked. Now look at her face when she does get caught:

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Simone tries to pull her indoors, a moment whose significance won’t become clear until later. But she breaks away, only to get caught again:

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And as Simone shoos the friends out of the yard, she approaches the camera and we see the face of a girl who knows she’s doomed:

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One last effort to get away… but now her mother has her by the skirt.

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I mentioned before that, in this version, the buildup sequence is a lot briefer and simpler than it later became, as successive performances learned how to milk the situation for its tense anticipation and undignified comedy. Another reason is that Stanley Holden’s Simone is physically slighter than some of his successors: mother and daughter are about the same height as one another, so it’s understandable that Holden makes no attempt to carry Lise bodily over to the seat.

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For a moment, it almost looks as if she might be about to get away with just another smacking. But no, the one certainty through this whole sequence is that Lise is going to be spanked. There is one change of plan, though.

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Simone walks her backwards on pointe – away from the door to the house. Lise’s escape attempts and the widow’s physical limitations mean that the spanking won’t now happen behind closed doors – it will have to be done out here in the yard. And so, as the music builds up to a climax…

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… Simone whisks her daughter’s skirts out of the way…

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… and Lise gets what she’s been so desperately trying to avoid:

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A good spanking!

Now here’s a question: would Lise have been better off letting herself be taken indoors to be spanked? Leaving aside Simone’s additional exasperation because of the escape attempts, the fact that the spanking is now administered outside in the yard means that this can happen:

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For Lise, it’s a ‘swings and roundabouts’ situation: the spanking ends prematurely – but it is also seen by the neighbors. The cost of her hopeless attempt to avoid being spanked at all has been additional humiliation, but at least she only got three smacks before she is released, clearly pained and mortified…

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As the scene is played, there is no doubt that Farmer Thomas has seen what he has seen, and what follows is a polite, embarrassed pretence that it just didn’t happen. Simone is good at this social game, whereas Lise’s rueful look shows she is less so:

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But at least she can sit down – which wouldn’t have been the case if she had been taken inside and got the full-length spanking in private!

It’s a real privilege to be able to see and appreciate the attention to detail in this, the original version of Ashton’s great ballet. But the 1962 recording was not the only time Fille was broadcast. Regrettably the next one, from 1979 with Karen Kain in the National Ballet of Canada production, is not at present available, though presumably the television company has it in their archives, and a VHS recording is known to be in private hands. But subsequent broadcasts featuring Lesley Collier (Royal Ballet, 1981), Fiona Tonkin (Australian Ballet, 1989) and Marianela Nuñez (Royal Ballet, 2005) are all available on DVD. More recently, Roberta Marquez was filmed for live transmission to cinemas in 2012, and on May 5 this year there will be a similar broadcast featuring Natalia Osipova. Some of these productions will feature in future installments of this series.

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