The Fille Files: Before Ashton

It is sometimes asserted, by people whose idea of research is to look up what it says on Wikipedia, that La Fille Mal Gardée has one of the oldest spanking scenes in the repertory. For Fille has been around since the eighteenth century: it was devised in 1789 by the French choreographer Jean Dauberval (1742-1806) when the Grand Theater in Bordeaux urgently needed a new ballet. He found inspiration in a print shop that was selling an engraving of Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s 1760s genre painting, The Reprimand, showing a girl being told off by her mother in a barn while her would-be lover slinks away into the darkness of an inner room:

In those three figures, Dauberval saw the core of a story: a fille who just wants to have fun, a young man she hopes to have fun with and a scolding mother who won’t allow it. He worked it up, developing the second strand of the mother’s alternative plans for the girl’s marital future, and cast his wife to dance the leading role of the wayward daughter.

The ballet premiered at the Grand on July 1, 1789, just thirteen days before the French Revolution. So surely that counts as a very long-standing spanking?

People who actually know something about Fille‘s history will point out that its familiar form, with the spanking scene in the first act, was created and choreographed by Frederick Ashton in 1960. That was, obviously, relatively late in the ballet’s lifespan, when it was already 171 years old – an age the Ashton version will not attain until the year 2131, when none of us will be around to see it. But even so, it has a pedigree back to very early times: Ashton’s starting-point was a French scenario for an 1803 production, which he found in the British Museum. It’s worth looking at two key moments in this old document, in order to see how he amended and modeled them in creating the ballet we now know and love.

First, Lise is caught by her mother being wooed by Colas, and excuses herself with the story that she only came out to see what was going on, and wound up getting kissed against her will. Says the scenario:

‘Simone does not believe a word, gives her a few slaps for this untruth and forbids her to go out.’

And though the 1803 document doesn’t say what part of Lise is getting slapped, that is in essence the moment that in Ashton’s hands became the smacking.

1962 Nerina 005

There are ‘further reproaches’ and ‘more threats’ from Simone as we go into the butter-churning sequence, followed by the pas de deux with Colas and the arrival of the friends to tempt Lise away from her chores. And then:

‘Simone appears, muttering, and drives the girls away. They make their escape, laughing. Lise anticipates her mother’s reproaches by explaining that it was the girls who prevented her from doing her allotted task. The old woman refuses to believe this excuse and raises her fist to strike her. At that moment Thomas arrives, followed by his son Alain.’

And as we know, Ashton brilliantly removed the brutality of the fist by turning it into the flat of the maternal hand:

1960 653313fa8cf2238c_large

So putting it in a nutshell, the spanking was an Ashton innovation to bring the ballet’s mother-and-daughter relationship into line with the acceptable norms of the mid-20th century.

But if that’s the case, then here’s a mystery. The notoriously acerbic theater critic Claudia Cassidy once wrote in the Chicago Tribune about a Fille revival that was ‘probably a long way from the original,’ adding that ‘somehow I doubt that mama spanked Lisette on the French stage of 1789’. She wasn’t talking about the Ashton version, not simply because she gives an alternative name for the character whom Ashton calls Lise, but also and more fundamentally because the Ashton version didn’t yet exist: she was writing in 1949 about the American Ballet Theatre version by Dmitri Romanoff, which toured America and was also televised that year, with Edward Caton as Simone and Nana Gollner as, according to Cassidy, ‘a charming Lisette’.

Romanoff based his choreography on that of Bronislava Nijinska, created for the same company in 1940, with Patricia Bowman in the lead.

He had himself danced the role of Colas in this version when it was performed in Chicago in 1942 under the title Naughty Lisette, with Irina Baronova as naughty Lisette.

The Baronova version was based in turn on Alexander Gorsky’s choreography for the 1903 revival at the Bolshoi in Moscow, which itself drew on the 1885 version prepared by Marius Petipa for the St Petersburg production in which the celebrated Italian ballerina Virginia Zucchi played Lise as ‘a cunning, spoiled, passionate girl’:

And this too had an antecedent in Paul Taglioni’s version, which premiered in Berlin in 1864.

Now, it’s all very well tracing back the pedigree like this, but it can only be done in general terms, and won’t tell us the specific thing we want to know: when the spanking business found its way into the ballet, or indeed anything about the circumstances surrounding it. But for the latter, we are indebted to the great Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine, who included a summary of Fille as one of his 101 Stories of the Great Ballets (1954).

Forget the Ashton version: as Balanchine tells it, the spanking only happens at almost the very end. The harvest is in and Lisette has been locked in at home by her mother, only to find that Colas has smuggled himself into the house. But the widow is heard coming back, and Colas has to hide in the hayloft. Unfortunately, he forgets his scarf, and Simone notices it as soon as she’s through the door. And we’ll hear what happens next in Balanchine’s own words:

‘Simone fetches a large switch to beat the girl. Lisette runs, but the old woman catches up with her, spanks her soundly and, as an additional penalty, locks her in the hayloft.’

That’s almost certainly what happened to Nana Gollner in 1949, and it’s good bet that it also happened to Irina Baronova in 1942 and Patricia Bowman in 1940. But does the business really go all the way back to Imperial Russia in the 19th century?

It does. We know that because there’s a surviving synopsis of the ballet made by the ballerina Evgenia Pavlovna Sokolova, who danced the role of Lise in the 1870s.

It’s a remarkably detailed document that runs for pages and pages, and it brings out the ever-present threat of spanking that hangs over Lise throughout the ballet, to be finally realized just before her mother locks her in a storeroom – substantively the same way as it also happens in the Balanchine retelling three generations later. Sokolova is specific enough to say that Lise is spanked with a spindle, and even that this leaves her ‘very sore’!

Although the Ashton choreography dominates productions of Fille in America and Western Europe, the older version is often staged in Russia and Latin America, generally with the spanking done SLB rather than OTK. Here, for example, is a Brazilian production of 2012 with Roberto Rosa and Fernanda Bianchi:

The wide contemporary footprint of this non-Ashton spanking scene may be illustrated with a run of videos of productions staged in the last quarter-century. The earliest is from Miami in 1997 and José Parés isn’t so much half-hearted in what he does to Rosario Suárez – he’s quarter-hearted. So it’s as well to get this one out of the way first…

Only one smack for Marina Bretado in this Mexican dance school production from 2013, but Felipe de Jesús Ayala really makes it count, and makes her skirts fly!

Next up is a Cuban production of 2016. Dani Hernandez picks up Anette Delgado for the full SLB, and though it doesn’t last long, it does make her cry.

Do it again, Dani! Well, actually, this one’s an earlier performance with Grettel Morejon as Lisette:

Still in Cuba, and the spankings are getting longer, as Anissa Curbelo finds out to her cost here:

And we’ll round off with three productions by the same company in Ecuador, the first from 2002, which has some especially good leg-work from Lisette:

A slightly more subdued Lisette from 2007, and a slightly more ungainly spanking:

And from 2009, a Lisette who really understands how to make flying skirts work for a performance:

But after these riches, it’s as well to end with a warning: with its complicated history of successive and sometimes overlapping versions, Fille won’t always include a spanking scene in either of the two traditional places, or at all. But don’t be disappointed: the ballet’s so popular that there’s bound to be another Fille spanking along shortly, whether Ashton or otherwise!

One thought on “The Fille Files: Before Ashton

  1. maitrefesseur says:

    Wow, a superb and highly interesting essay, uncovering by meticulous research some of the lesser known Non-Ashton spanking elements and their history. Very appreciated, which also goes for the video illustrations.


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