Although this is an article primarily about La Fille Mal Gardée, let’s begin with a really top-notch publicity photo from Kiss Me Kate, which will help to make the central point.
That’s William Strong and Alia Munsch in the 2012 youth production at the Kweskin Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut. Though they’re quite young performers – both in their late teens at the time of the production – they’ve done a terrific job with the picture, from Alia’s look of dismay down to her graceful, balletic legs kicking helplessly in the air. It’s such a good photo that the theater later used it for a fund-raising drive, with Alia being spanked for supposedly forgetting to contribute! But there’s one thing about it that doesn’t quite make sense…
This is one of those especially enjoyable Kiss Me Kate spankings that are done with a raised skirt, and it is the more welcome because this time Lilli’s costume doesn’t include long period bloomers covering up her shapely thighs. But what Fred has signally failed to do is uncover the target! For a reminder of how to do it properly, we turn to Matthew Sean Callahan and Amber Burgess in the 2008 Amish Acres production:
Amber’s skirt and petticoats are in disarray, turned inside out on her back, whereas Alia’s dress is tucked up around her hips to form a teasing little pelmet. And crucially, Amber has the seat of her panties fully exposed for spanking. In comparison, Alia’s costume looks beautifully arranged and oddly modest – and there’s the point. We don’t know what actually happened onstage, but for the publicity picture they shot to sell their production, the Kweskin Theatre stopped just short of the indecorum of a panty spanking.
That’s rarely a real issue with Kiss Me Kate, because there’s always the option to leave the skirt down. But in La Fille Mal Gardée, the lifting of Lise’s skirt is a standard part of the choreography and contributes to the comic pointing of the moment: it’s not just a matter of spanking efficiency, but also about Farmer Thomas seeing much more of Lise than he should after his arrival at the most inopportune moment. But that’s also a bit of a problem for the publicity department, because Fille is often, and rightly, marketed as the most family-friendly ballet in the repertory. So if your poster is going to feature a typical, universally identifiable domestic moment between mother and daughter, the one thing you don’t want is to suggest anything at all risqué.
Here’s how Hong Kong Ballet squared the circle in the publicity pictures for their 2000 production:
But it’s not just a problem of what you put on the poster, but arguably what happens onstage too. You might think that dancers’ panties are a common enough sight in ballet, but the whole sequence is uncomfortable for some decent, progressive-thinking audience members. We’ll let an online critic named Emma Jane put the case in her review of the 2015 Royal Ballet revival. ‘La Fille Mal Gardée brings together many of the things I dislike most in dance, theatre, art, life,’ she wrote. As well as dancing chickens, the live pony, the dragged-up Widow Simone and the simpleton Alain, she specified ‘scenes with girls having their skirts lifted and being spanked, and nobody thinking that’s pervy’. If that represents a significant section of audience opinion, then unless you simply decide not to do Fille at all, then you’ve got to consider making some compromises.
The first option is the simplest: leave the skirt down. Here’s a production from 2008 at the French ballet school in Uckange:
Or how about another ballet school production? This one’s from Auckland, New Zealand, in 2013, with Karen Hurley’s Lise striking a somewhat ungainly pose while her mother’s hand is raised to spank:
And professional productions sometimes follow the same course. Here’s the end of the spanking in the 2004 Australian Ballet production, with Colin Peasley’s Simone distracted from dealing with Lucinda Dunn’s Lise when she suddenly realizes Farmer Thomas has come in:
And for added security, guaranteeing that absolutely nothing improper will be seen no matter what Simone may do, Lise can always wear leggings under her skirt, as in this 2009 production from a French ballet school:
The trouble is, that just isn’t true to the choreography, which calls for the skirt to be lifted. So what alternatives does a pusillanimous ballet company have? They could do what the River Valley Dance Academy of North Dakota did in 2011, when the Widow lifted Shelby Gilliland’s skirt – in such a way that Lise’s uncovered bottom was exposed to her spanking hand, but not to the camera lens or the audience’s eye.
Or how about lifting the skirt but leaving the petticoats down? That’s a tricky manoeuvre, involving the separation of layers of fabric, but it’s what happened to Natasha Siouta in the 2009 Greek National Opera production:
This can become slightly absurd, as in the 2012 production at the Ashley Ballet Arts Academy in Minnesota: Jacqueline Wille’s Lise was deprived of all but one diaphanous layer of petticoat – through which her panties were clearly visible anyway!
Perhaps even sillier is the compromise whereby Lise’s skirt is slipped up to expose just enough panty to spank, and not an inch more. But it’s also a pretty widespread maneuver. Witness ballet school productions in Venezuela, 2012:
Again, we can occasionally find a similar approach, only with even greater precision, in professional productions, such as that of 2014-15 in Bucharest, with Alina Cojocaru:
But in the end, the Fille spanking scene isn’t about being seemly or ladylike: it’s all about indecorum. There simply is no substitute, choreographically, practically or dramatically, for a fully raised skirt, presenting the whole bottom to spank, the full exposure to be embarrassed by. Few productions have done it better than the Indiana Ballet Conservatory in 2015:
We might call it the Gold Standard – or maybe it should have a different name, in honor of that outstanding Kiss Me Kate actress, also from Indiana: the Amber Benchmark!