A spanking scene is always the better for a good buildup, and this is one of the ways La Fille Mal Gardée can’t be beat: Lise tries everything to get away, and the delay only adds to the piquancy of the spanking, when it eventually happens. We have seen elsewhere that it is alternatively possible to play the scene so that the spanking isn’t inevitable, but instead is something her mother does out of exasperation and virtually on the spur of the moment, but I think that’s not what the score itself indicates.
One of the ballet’s recurring musical motifs is a repeated pattern of phrases, comprising 8, 8, 8 and 5 notes, which seems to be associated with tension between mother and daughter. Most obviously, it starts up after Lise has been caught by the widow, when it is the musical buildup to the spanking. Although the score’s arranger, John Lanchberry, called it the ‘nagging’ theme, in fact the ‘telling off’ music is a different piece, and and I think of this one specifically as the ballet’s ‘impending spanking’ leitmotif – so that, when it recurs in the second act, it’s a clear signal of a danger which, this time, is averted when the widow is distracted by the opportunity to show off her clog-dancing in one of the ballet’s most popular moments.
But we’ve also heard this music before: it occurs immediately after the smacking, when Simone takes Lise sternly by the ear.
It effectively indicates that, if a mere smacking isn’t enough, her mother has worse in store for her. It begins as a threat, then recurs when the threat is about to be realized:
So I think Lise usually knows what’s at stake… but her head is full of other things, like her love of Colas and of life itself, which is why she can’t apply herself conscientiously to the task she was given. But as the ballet moves into the pre-spanking sequence, the really interesting question to ponder is: do her friends know?
Things couldn’t be clearer in the original 1960 production, because Lise explicitly tells them at the outset that, if she leaves the butter churn to dance with them, she will be spanked. But the ‘spanking mime’ from Nadia Nerina’s performance in 1960 morphed into something very different in later productions, which means that sometimes the friends may have only the vaguest idea of what’s in store for Lise if she should fail to escape from her angry mother. And that makes all the difference to the way they behave in the pre-spanking sequence.
It begins when Simone comes out of the house to find that Lise has abandoned her churning chore. She has come to take her daughter inside to change for the impending visit of her idiot fiancé and his father.
But Lise just wants to play with her friends, and breaks away. Understandably peeved, the widow gives chase…
… and the buildup’s first climax is a great set-piece moment when the friends form themselves into a kind of human shield for Lise.
This turns into a moment of sublime comic irony as Lise creeps backwards down the lineup, crouching so as not to be seen over her friends’ heads and gesturing at them to be quiet.
The friends can see, and Lise herself cannot, that her mother is waiting for her at the end of the line. But the circumstances are such that they can’t actually say anything. And that makes it especially interesting to observe their facial performances as Lise backs her way into nemesis.
In this Brazilian ballet school production from 2009, the girls clearly know just what a disaster is about to happen: Lise is going to be caught, and Lise is going to be spanked. The one on the left is even trying to warn her with her pointing finger, but most realize that their friend is already in the trap that is only a moment away from being sprung.
In other productions, the girls look down in meek, expressionless silence: they would like to help Lise, but there is nothing whatever that they can do. Take this example from Indiana Ballet Conservatory in 2015:
In a good performance, the girls’ reaction will also develop as Lise comes nearer and nearer to her fate. We can see multiple stages in these pictures from a 2012 performance in Venezuela, and another in Brazil the following year. First anxiety…
Then the awful realization that their friend is doomed:
Here are a few more glorious stunned faces from another Brazilian ballet school in 2015:
Despite their best efforts, these girls all know that there’s a good spanking in Lise’s immediate future!
But now let’s see a rather different interpretation, from a 2009 performance in Sarezzo, Italy. Once again, the jig is up and Lise has been caught…
… but her friends have quite a range of different reactions to it. Two of the girls are studiously ignoring what’s happening. The girl at extreme left watches with a slightly rictus grimace, as though she can imagine what’s to come, while the face third from left reads as sympathetic resignation to the inevitable. But look at the three girls in the middle. In different ways and to different degrees, they are all smiling!
You can see a similar range of expressive reactions in this 2010 production from the Petrouchka School of Ballet in Rio de Janeiro…
…and at another Brazilian dance school in 2011:
And it’s when we try to read these responses that it becomes vital to know whether the girls do or don’t know that, for Lise, the outcome is going to be:
Sometimes it’s made fairly obvious from the widow’s demeanor in the chase itself:
In that example, from a Czech production in 2008, it even looks rather worse for Lise than it eventually turns out! But equally, sometimes it’s just a madcap angry mother, which makes some of the girls’ amusement a little more understandable.
But when you observe reactions like these, from a Pennsylvania ballet school in 2013…
… you start to wonder whether the friends actually like Lise very much, in view of the way they react to her misfortune. There are even a few productions where they nod encouragingly to Lise as she backs along the line, even though they can clearly see what’s waiting for her at the end – so in these versions, in effect, it’s her friends who get her spanked!
Sometimes, however, they are truer friends than that, and don’t give up even after Lise has been caught. In several productions they are so keen to help her get away that they end up playing tug-of-war with the widow:
And sometimes, they share, just a little, in Lise’s fate: the last of the friends to leave gets the widow’s palm across her bottom to send her on her way!
And since some of those girls are the ones we saw smirking earlier, maybe it serves them right!
Even with her friends gone, Lise doesn’t stop trying to escape. But that’s a part of the buildup that will have to wait for another time.