The Fille Files: Natalia Osipova

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This perky young lady is Moscow-born Natalia Osipova, who was a soloist at the Bolshoi Ballet before coming to London in 2013 to be a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet.

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She’s a dancer of great technical skill, noted for her breathtaking leaps and aerial work, which is usually, to be fair, a bit more graceful than this selection:

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She has expressed a preference for modern work over classical…

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… so it was ironic that in 2015 she was honored for the Best Classical Performance by a Female Dancer at the National Dance Awards, for her Giselle. And a natural follow-on from Giselle, though its polar opposite in terms of mood, is La Fille Mal Gardée, whose title role she danced a few months after the awards, to mixed reviews. She was coached in the part by Lesley Collier, herself another notable Lise from times gone by, seen here in the 1980 television production:

1980 Lesley Collier

Osipova took the role at the age of 28, which hits just about the right balance between maturity of technique and youthfulness of physique. And she was suitable in other ways, too. According to her, the part really suits her personality: she sees herself as an open, mischief-making person, so she decided to play Lise as, essentially, a pastoral version of Natalia Osipova.

According to one online review of this production, the ballet features ‘too much mimed spanking for modern sensibilities’. Well, actually, no, there’s far too little spanking, mimed or otherwise, for our tastes, because this is one of those productions where Lise is ‘saved by the bell’ – or rather, by the lack of a doorbell and the unexpected entrance of Farmer Thomas before her mother’s palm lands even once on its frilly target. But those modern sensibilities aren’t irrelevant either, as we shall see…

The aborting of the spanking provides a moment of rich comedy as the Widow, having registered the arrivals and waved to them, looks directly down at Lise’s uncovered bottom:

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Not only have mother and daughter been caught in a compromising position, she herself is still holding up the skirt and petticoats – as if deliberately displaying Lise’s rear end for their visitors!

Now look at Lise’s face.

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Lise, as performed by different dancers, can react in various ways to her lucky escape: relief, obviously, often combined with puzzlement if she can’t see the reason the spanking has stopped, or else embarrassment if she can. But Osipova is the only Lise I have ever seen who is cross about it:

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And that gets to the heart of this interpretation of the role. Although the production looks every inch a traditional staging of Fille, the central performance is strikingly original. In line with the current taste for strong women characters, Osipova plays a less vulnerable, more confident Lise than usual: a girl who knows what she’s doing and what she wants, with a steely determination to engage with the world on her own terms, and less prone to be downcast by adversity – even when she is literally prone and about to suffer the adversity of a good spanking.

And part of this ‘modern’ take on the characterization has directly to do with spanking.

In the sequence where Lise is about to be caught by her mother, her friends are always a good barometer – something I’ll write about at more length another time. Their reaction to what is about to happen, which Lise herself can’t see, depends on how much they know about what the outcome will be: if they know that, when caught, Lise will be spanked, the scale of the impending disaster will register on their faces.

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In this production, their reactions range from indifference to slight sympathy to nonchalant amusement at the antics of mother and daughter. One thing they certainly don’t know is that this is going to end with a spanking. And there are two good reasons for that. The first and more immediate is that, when they try to persuade her to leave the butter churn and join them in their dance, Lise doesn’t do the ‘spanking mime’ that tips them off. Nothing out of the ordinary about that: in many a production over the years it has been played as fanning her face, perhaps to say she’s tired of the chore and could do with a break. (Lesley Collier, Osipova’s coach, was among those who chose that interpretation.) But But Osipova plays it more cheekily, and even momentarily points to her temple, as if to say, ‘you know how crazy my Mom is!’ The stakes, it seems, are low…

Let’s backtrack a moment to the smacking, earlier in the action, and look again at Lise’s facial reaction:

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I think that’s best described as disorientated exasperation: she’s much more upset by the fact that her mother is getting in the way of what she wants to do than by the fact that her mother’s hand is about to make sharp contact with her bottom. When it happens, it is an uncommonly extended version of the sequence with seven smacks administered, and Lise certainly feels it:

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But the key thing is that she doesn’t expect it, just as later on neither she nor her friends anticipate that she is risking a spanking when she neglects her chores. When, after being caught, she tries to get away, it’s so that she can continue playing with her friends, not to escape her undignified and painful doom.

Here she is at the crucial moment:

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That is not the face of a girl who knows and fears what is about to happen to her. And when her skirt is raised, she looks back at her mother as if to ask what on earth she’s doing.

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Lise and her friends don’t foresee the spanking because, in line with those modern sensibilities the online reviewer mentioned, this Fille takes place in a world where spanking is not a normal part of a naughty girl’s life: the Widow is resorting to unusual methods to control her wayward daughter, which shows how very important it is to her that Lise should marry Farmer Thomas’ idiot son. What Lise is saved from is not just a spanking but her first ever spanking.

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But because of this, there is one later part of the ballet that no longer makes sense. One of Fille’s broader themes is growing up, which for Lise entails both passing beyond the control of her mother, and then, in effect, becoming her mother. She foresees the latter in a cute mimed sequence where she thinks forward to pregnancy and parenthood. And among other things, she imagines herself spanking her own daughter:

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As you can see, the moment is retained in the Osipova performance; but how can this Lise possibly think about motherhood in those terms when she herself has grown up unspanked?

The production is one of high technical accomplishment, but despite this it’s fair to say that not everyone will like this interpretation of La Fille Mal Gardée, and not only because there’s too much spanking for some tastes and not enough for others. But part of the joy of Fille is that, if a production should ever disappoint, there’s sure to be another one along soon!

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Paul for his help in researching this article.

Note: This production of Fille is due for release on DVD. When that happens, I will upgrade the still images in this article. If you want to see the performance in motion – please rent or buy the DVD!

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