Our subject today is the Australian Ballet’s 1980s production of La Fille Mal Gardée, starring Fiona Tonkin. Whether she’s portraying Lise’s sorrow, joy or sheer cheekiness, Tonkin does it with strikingly disciplined, precise movements. And what’s more, she makes an excellent job of the spanking scene, as we shall soon see!
She doesn’t have an especially exciting life story: she’s simply a successful performer who did work of great artistry and technical skill, and reaped well-deserved critical acclaim for it. Born in Singapore in 1961, she trained as a dancer in New Zealand, joined the Australian Ballet in 1980 and became a Principal Artist in 1987. She retired from dancing in 1993, but went on to teach and is now the Australian Ballet’s Principal Ballet Mistress.
The spanking was evidently considered an important part of the production, because it was chosen for the publicity photograph that represented the ballet as a whole in the company’s general repertory.
And it’s one of the very best of the posed Fille spanking stills, giving a clear view of both Lise’s face and the uncovered seat of her panties.
In the photo, Simone is played by Colin Peasley; but for the performance we’re going to be looking at, he made way for an older man. 64-year-old Ray Powell had actually retired some years before but returned as a guest artist from time to time, including for the television version that was recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on June 20, 1989. The director was Virginia Lumsden, who had already shot many a stage opera for broadcasting. Released in 1994 and now available on DVD, it reflects the technical standards of television of its era, from the picture definition to the slightly washed-out late Eighties color palette. It also has to be said that Lumsden’s choices of shots and her cuts between shots, while they result in an efficient rendering of the ballet in general, don’t always serve us as well as they might.
The reason is this. Whatever kind of work for live performance we may be talking about, whether stage play, opera or ballet, to see and enjoy it more than once entails not only appreciating the particular skills of the performers in front of you on each occasion, but also the small and subtle differences in the realization and interpretation of a script that is bound to be broadly the same each time. It’s a bit like the way we enjoy spanking imagery: always similar, never identical. And it’s truest of all with Fille, where the lines of the action are tightly prescribed by the choreography even as the exact details are subject to individual variation. The weakness of Virginia Lumsden’s screen version is that it is often in long shot at the very moment when you want to see a particular facial reaction or some other distinctive element of this specific performance. But let’s not moan about that without also giving thanks that it exists at all!
Our first order of business is, of course, the smacking. It’s quite an extended treatment: Lise gets seven smacks in all. What’s outstanding about it is the subtle development of Tonkin’s performance, which comes out especially well if you watch in slow motion. She starts off looking apprehensive, as well she might.
After the first smack, she looks rueful.
But after a couple more…
… her whole body seems to relax, as if she thinks it’s over. And it’s not over, not by a long chalk. Simone just keeps on smacking her bottom, and by the fifth smack she’s really looking as if she’s had enough.
And there are still two more to go!
But is she genuinely contrite? Moments later, when she puts Simone’s mob cap back on for her and manages to get it backwards, over her mother’s eyes, Tonkin plays it as a deliberate act of revenge, with a nod and a smirk. And where exactly is she sore?
The part she rubs is her ear, just as, later on, she rubs her face after Simone slaps it. But the one area of her body that she never, ever rubs better is the part that receives the largest number of maternal blows: her bottom. There’s something slightly decorous about that, which accentuates the various moments of indecorum and indignity to which she is subjected in the ongoing struggle with her mother.
Tonkin’s Lise is basically a good girl: when her friends come to tempt her away from her chores, she is conscientious and responsible in her refusal, but they just won’t take no for a answer. The mime she does to explain herself is in the ‘my mom will go crazy’ school of interpretation…
… rather than the ‘I will be spanked’ version that appeared in the original production with Nadia Nerina. And that brings us to the big unanswered question of this production: exactly when does Simone decide to spank Lise?
We have seen that, as Ashton first conceived the ballet, the risk is established early and the outcome becomes progressively more inevitable with almost every move Lise makes. But a combination of Ray Powell’s performance and Virginia Lumsden’s directorial choices make the widow harder to read. The moment when Lise joyously dances right into her mother as she comes out of the door ought to tell us something about the way the wind is blowing, but Lumsden undersells it in long shot:
A late cut to a closer shot then shows us a Simone who doesn’t seem especially displeased to see her daughter, even if she isn’t churning butter.
It looks almost as if Simone is thinking: so she’s been slacking off with her friends – she’s young, and at least it wasn’t with that no-good bum Colas. But Lise obviously doesn’t see it that way, and she makes a run for it:
The friends also seem to think it’s a bit of a calamity:
And so we have the succession of escape attempts, beginning with the moment when Lise backs along the line of her friends and reverses into Simone – which really makes her jump! Simone is perhaps starting to look a bit serious when she shoos the friends away, but not especially angry: all the emotion of the scene is showing in Lise’s face.
And that remains the case in the remaining unsuccessful escapes.
So what the performances seem to be telling us is that Lise and her friends believe she is going to be spanked before Simone has actually decided to do it – which means that Lise’s persistence in trying to evade her mother, and the spanking she imagines she’s in for, is exactly what causes her mother to lose her equanimity and administer the ultimate sanction.
The decision must have been made by the time Simone walks her backwards to the seat – the option to carry her bodily was probably ruled out by the casting of a dancer in his mid-60s.
And then over she goes and up with her skirts, and we’re away!
By Fille standards it’s a relatively long spanking: not the longest I’ve ever seen, but Lise gets five good slaps before the punishment is interrupted.
Lise hammers the seat with her fists in protest, and her legs kick excitingly.
And the sound of the slaps is audible on the recording – so exactly in synch that they were surely not made by the orchestra, but the impact of palm on panties.
And after the fifth slap – which is, let’s face it, as many as you get in some screen spankings that aren’t interrupted – the widow realizes they are bring watched.
At this point, we cut to a wide, high-angle shot that is, obviously, essential to tell the story of the moment:
It’s regrettable but unavoidable that in consequence we don’t get a very clear sight of Lise’s reaction:
But there is a nice little gesture of annoyance after she has been let up, when she shakes out the front of her skirts at her mother:
The real problem was the position of the back of her skirts a few moments ago, but again there’s that signature Tonkin sense of decorum that really helps to make this gloriously indecorous scene such a joy to watch.