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Cinderellas - Ashton and Otherwise


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The four choreographers,other than Ashton,with Royal Ballet/Royal Ballet School connections whose Cinderella's I was referring to are Michael Corder who made his ballet for English National Ballet in 1996,Ashley Page who made his for Scottish Ballet in 2007,David Bintley who made his for Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2011 and Wheeldon himself.The fifth choreographer is Ratmansky who made his Cinderella for the Mariinsky in 2002.

 

I have to say that I still find Ashton's Cinderella the most satisfying response to the Prokoviev score that I have seen.The waltz for the female corps at the end of the first act is a choreographic gem at the same level with his choreography for the female corps in Scenes de Ballet,Cinderella's first solo is beautiful and the pas de deux at the end of the ballroom scene is an extraordinary mixture of choreographic simplicity and grandeur which lingers long after the performance is over. It is worth the cost of the ticket in itself.

 

I suspect that it is the memorable nature of Ashton's choreography which so often seems to be the only natural response to Prokoviev's score that gets in the way as far as choreographers with Royal Ballet/ Royal ballet school connections are concerned. It is almost as if so much of their time and energy is directed towards avoiding Ashton that they fail to find a satisfactory choreographic response to it themselves.

 

I am not saying that Ashton's Cinderella as currently performed is without its faults but these are almost all faults of characterisation, coaching and direction rather than inherent choreographic faults. It is not Ashton's fault that each redesign seems to justify broad playing.The Jester is now generally played as a close relative of the Soviet jester in Swan lake,a leg machine rather than a character.But the shift from subtle characterisation to empty technical display is a fault of casting and coaching not a choreographic fault.It is the Ugly Sisters who present the greatest threat to the ballet as it is performed today.They started as characters played en travesti but although they derive from the pantomime tradition they are not pantomime dames.Those responsible for staging revivals seem to encourage coarse broad performances or at least seem to do nothing to discourage them.The fact is that these faults could easily be remedied by those responsible for reviving the ballet if they had the taste and the will to do so.

 

Where to start? Removing the Jester's thick makeup so that we could see his facial expression would be a good start.Making the performer understand that the Jester is not a role in which technique is all that is required but a character who suffers loss during the course of the ballet would help.The sisters are not a lost cause either but they need to be played as characters rather than for broad comedy.The first audiences would have recognised the references to contemporary performers and choreographers and the choreographic jokes.The timid Ashton sister forgets her steps and moves seamlessly from eighteenth century dance to twentieth century musical comedy while the dominant Helpmann sister dances or attempts to dance using the brilliant technique of the late nineteenth century Italian school. They end up dancing a sequence, which as I understand it, was originally danced by Fred and Adele Astaire.The jokes are connected to dance but they also delineate the character of both sisters.

 

There is no need for pratt falls or for Wellington and Napoleon and the latter's detachable wig. The men were originally just two men who danced with the sisters. They became Wellington and Napoleon when Wayne Sleep was given one of the roles.If the company and the ballet's owner were to revert to using women as the sisters as they did for a time in the 1950,s that would bring an end to the competition in coarse playing that we currently see.We might begin to see Ashton's Cinderella for what it is, not simply the first full length British ballet but Ashton's Petipa ballet with much beautiful choreography in it.

It is interesting to note that Ashton was only a few years older than Wheeldon is now when he made his Cinderella in 1948.At the time that Ashton began work on his first full length ballet he had years of experience working in the commercial theatre behind him.As Markova said in the tribute shown by the BBC at the time of his death Ashton having worked for C.B.Cochrane was the complete professional who knew how to make things tell and exactly how long anything should last. I suspect that was the highest compliment she could bestow on anyone.It will be interesting to see how much Wheeldon has learnt about structure and timing from his foray into the commercial theatre. I am far from sure that Wheeldon has the same sure touch when it comes to timing, duration and impact.I wonder whether he will decide to tinker with his Winter's Tale by extending the recognition scene so that it really registers and trimming the Bohemia scene a bit or whether we will have to wait to see his next new work before we discover what,if anything,he has learnt from his experience.

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Sunrise has very sensibly suggested that we have a thread where we can, if we wish, discuss the merits of various different Cinderellas, rather than hijacking the thread specifically about DNB's current performances at the Coli.

 

So here it is...

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I remember when I interviewed Christopher Wheeldon for The Dancing Times in 2012 I asked him how long a shadow Ashton's version of the ballet cast. Then Wheeldon's production was yet to be seen in Amsterdam, where it replaced Ashton's.

 

Although Wheeldon appreciated and understood Ashton as a choreographer he told me that he did not consider Cinderella to be top drawer Ashton, so there was no particular pressure in creating a new version. He said (see Dancing Times January 2013) he was more interested in understanding how the prince and Cinderella find themselves in the situtations in which they both find themselves

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This is a very interesting thread. I must confess that Cinderella is my personal favourite of the full length Ashton works, although I must accept it is very much a flawed masterpiece. I think much of my fondness is due to the fact that I saw some great casts in the 80s, culminating in seeing Sibley and Dowell about 3 (?) times. I particularly remember Sibley's first return to the role. My DVD of them with Ashton and Helpmann is one of my most treasured recordings.

 

I also have very happy memories of Collier and Dowell as well as Park and Eagling amongst others. I agree fully with FLOSS's points about the jester, the current state of the ugly sisters and anything involving Wayne Sleep and Napoleon. I am very interested and grateful for his observations on the styles of dance for the sisters. I will get out my recordings and have a look at that with different eyes.

 

I have not seen the RB dance this for several years but I must say that I regret the replacement of the Walker designs. The ones I saw last were nowhere near as good, let alone any improvement.

 

Love all the season variations, the dance of the stars and the pas de deux and variations in act 2. At least act 3 is suitably short and the reconciliation can be very touching.

 

Given that for me the Ashton version is the gold standard the other version with which I am reasonably familiar, David Bintley's for BRB. there is one area where I feel it can well hold its own and that is John Macfarlane's designs, especially for act 2. Apart from that I am afraid that the Ashton version casts a long shadow and the Bintley version does not match it for me.

 

Having said that, Bintley's version has a lot to recommend on its own terms. He has made a conscious effort not to produce a poor copy but I do not find his solution to the ugly sisters problem to be an improvement. The first act relies a bit too heavily on the star turn that is/was Marion Tait as the stepmother. I have seen the production about 3 times and I have yet to be persuaded by the Cinderella. I would like to see it again with some of the younger members of the company in the principal roles. I have the DVD but I tend to concentrate on Iain Mackay rather than both principles.

 

I have only seen the Dutch National on DVD. I liked the Cinderella very much and could cope with Matthew Golding. I liked most of the designs and loved the coup de theatre at the end but the rest of the choreography seemed undergripping to me. This is probably not a fair judgement as I have not seen a live performance of the production.

 

Either way, I think it will be a very long time before anyone anywhere, in any production will ever exceed my memories of Sibley with her broom, Dowell's entrance in act 2, Sibley coming down the staircase to meet him, her variation and their pas de deux.

 

That was magic. As always, thank you Sir Fred. You have enhanced my ballet going life so often. You are a very hard act to follow.

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I have seen but am not knowledgeable on the Ashton version so I don't have any particular hangups about other versions.  I don't have any issues with the choreographer portraying why Cinderella has ended up in the clutches of her Stepmother.

 

I've seen the Corder version and enjoyed it most last time it was out.  Someone gave me a ticket for Manchester so it would have been ungracious not to go.  I actually enjoyed the performance I saw so much that I booked to go back for the Saturday matinee.  A very young Vadim Muntagirov was dancing the Prince that day!

 

I really like David Bintley's version.  I love his choreography for the seasons and the stars.  The set is outstanding.

 

Although I love the score I think that whoever uses it has to put in a lot of filler to use it all, no matter how good the choreography is for the fillers.

 

My two favourite versions are the ones done for Northern Ballet where they were not hide-bound by the Prokofiev score.  Christopher Gable's version was just sublime (even though he did bring out the darker elements of the story with the step sisters trying to chop off their toes to fit into the shoes and then their eyes being pecked out by ravens). The production starts in the Spring when the harvest is being collected.  Cinderella's  brother dies in an accident and he and her mother become her guardian angels.  There are 2 particularly beautiful pdd for Cinderella and the Prince, both of which cause my eyes to spontaneously water!  The first is the blue ball duet as seen on the current Ballet Central tour and the other is the fireside duet when the Prince finds Cinderella but she is too ashamed of who she is until he throws off his jacket and tells her that he is an ordinary man too (this is also often seen on Ballet Central tours).  The tragedy of this piece is that it has not been seen complete since the late 1990s.  It is Christopher Gable's only full length work and we can only regret what we might have seen in the future if he had not died so tragically young.

 

David Nixon took another tack altogether although he also chose to commission a score from Philip Feeney.  He has chosen to set the ballet in a town in imperial Russia.  He said in a talk that there were so many minor princes in Russia that you did not have to imagine that it was a whole country the Prince would be ruling.  His ballet starts with a young Cinderella mourning her mother and  her father already remarried to a neighbour.  He is killed in an accident which the step mother unfairly blames Cinderella for.  His sisters are silly rather than truly spiteful but the Stepmother is downright wicked - even her own daughters are scared of her.  She befriends a magician at a fair, who is played by the same dancer who plays her father but it is left to your imagination as to whether you think he is a fairy godfather or not...  There is an added element in that when the Prince is searching for Cinderella and comes to the house he does not even realise who the servant Cinderella is.  He is furious that he has been taken in by a servant and storms off.  It gives Cinderella the impetus to walk out on the Stepmother and she and the Prince meet again and there is a most touching reconciliation duet.

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I am not sure whether saying that you do not consider Cinderella to be top drawer Ashton proves that it isn't that good. After all given Wheeldon's age he will only ever have seen it in the coarsened form in which it has been performed since Michael Somes ceased to be responsible for the Ashton repertory. Many of the faults that are currently seen in revivals of Ashton's Cinderella and are ascribed to his choreography have far more to do with casting choices and coaching than they have with characters or the structure of the ballet itself. The decline set in for Cinderella and many other Ashton works with Somes' retirement. The strange thing is that all four of the former members of the Royal Ballet whose Cinderella's I have seen do next to nothing with the music that Ashton uses for his most beautiful choreography.It is as if each of them is held back by it. The problem is that Prokoviev wrote a ballet score with a specific structure. Ashton follows that structure. If, for whatever reason,you decide not to follow the structure and ignore the big tunes which virtually demand grand choreography you make it virtually impossible to create a ballet with choreography that matches up to the music. It ends up being rather worthy but essentially unmemorable.

 

The general tendency to treat MacMillan as the choreographic messiah of the twentieth century and Ashton as the creator of charming small scale pieces to be dusted off and performed from time to time has not helped to maintain this work in good shape.The failure to rein in the antics of the Ugly Sisters,whether through a want of good taste or indifference to its impact on the ballet's structure has resulted in the piece becoming a classical ballet with a slapstick act attached to it which threatens to overwhelm it . Something that I don't recall from my earliest encounters with it when the sisters while played by men did actually belong to the same balletic world that Cinderella and her prince inhabited.It is clear from both the filmed version made for U.S. television with Ashton and MacMillan as the sisters and the 1968 recording with Ashton and Helpmann that the sisters are not pantomime dames.

 

Each revision of the designs has taken the ballet ever deeper into generic ballet land. Cinderella now has pretty rags and the sisters's costumes are so over the top that they encourage coarse performances by their wearers. I wonder whether restoring the original designs would help to restore the balance by making clear the world which the sisters inhabit is not that of slapstick and the provincial pantomime. In Macles' designs Cinderella's costumes were not pretty ballet rags and the sisters's costumes were positively ordinary in comparison with what the characters wear today.Restoring the original designs just might help to put it back on the right course.

 

If Wendy Ellis could be persuaded to remove all the extra bits of unfunny business that the ballet has acquired over the years and keep the sisters firmly under control we would actually be able to see that when Ashton created his Cinderella in 1948 he was following the advice that he gave to others about making ballets. Everything that you need to know about ballet construct is contained in act 1 of Petipa's Sleeping Beauty. We would recognise that Cinderella is Ashton's nineteenth century Russsian ballet and a much better one than performances over the last thirty years suggest it is.

Edited by FLOSS
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I would have thought that it proves that Christopher Wheeldon has a different opinion to yours.

 

I know of one member on this board who finds Ashton's choreography of anything boring!  

 

How much of his ballets would Petipa recognise if he was able to see them today?

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I have just re-read my earlier contribution. I cannot believe is spelt principals wrongly. I blame the spellchecker on my tablet. Apologies all round.

 

I didn't comment on the music. May I just say that the music for the fairy godmother, dance of the stars and the second act waltz are among my favourites in all ballet. Added to that the music for the pas de deux just has me in a sense of awe and wonder.

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I've only seen the Ashton and Bintley Cinderellas. I can't remember much about the former apart from the casting of the two leads and a feeling of disappointment about the performance. I saw Bintley's version a year or so later and much preferred it, probably because of the spectacular staging. It's possible that if I saw it again my feelings about it would be different because I have seen lot of ballets since then and have become a lot more interested in choreography as opposed to spectacle. I'm going to see Wheeldon's version tomorrow and am feeling slightly apprehensive about it after reading the mixed reviews from balletcoforum posters and critics alike. In general, I'm becoming concerned that many new ballets rely heavily on expensive scenery and costumes, elaborate lighting and special effects and that there is a danger that the choreography will become the servant of the staging rather than the other way round. If you strip away everything and ask the dancers to dance on a bare stage how interesting and appealing is the dancing? What is left when all the 'props' are taken away. That is the test for me.

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I really agree with your comments about lighting and special effects etc becoming more prominent than the choreography Aileen. Just think how much of Balanchine's work has the pared down presentation you refer to. Then the choreography sings and is never swamped.

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I've just been watching the DNB version on dvd for the first time, and while I agree that I missed Ashton's ballroom pdd and section with the stars, I surprisingly really enjoyed it. I thought the production was fantastic and imaginative, and though I'm not normally a big fan of Wheeldon, there is some really lovely choreography for the seasons. I also like the added focus on the prince which livened up what's usually a slow act 1 for me. Would love to see some of the other versions mentioned here. I agree there's a lot of 'filler' music to fill. Wondered if some dancing Disney mice could be fit in somewhere ;-)

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I am not saying that Ashton's Cinderella as currently performed is without its faults but these are almost all faults of characterisation, coaching and direction rather than inherent choreographic faults. It is not Ashton's fault that each redesign seems to justify broad playing.The Jester is now generally played as a close relative of the Soviet jester in Swan lake,a leg machine rather than a character.But the shift from subtle characterisation to empty technical display is a fault of casting and coaching not a choreographic fault. [...]

 

Where to start? Removing the Jester's thick makeup so that we could see his facial expression would be a good start.Making the performer understand that the Jester is not a role in which technique is all that is required but a character who suffers loss during the course of the ballet would help.

 

Indeed.  I'm not sure that I don't find what's been done to the jester over the years more distressing than what's been done to the sisters.

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Why is there a jester in Cinderella?

 

Is it not possible to have 'ugly sisters' who are not played as pantomime baddies, whether en travesti or not? Surely it's possible for choreography to show jealousy and malice without resorting to caricature and slapstick humour (I don't much care for Bintley's stepsisters either).

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Aileen,

Creating a full length ballet is,at its most basic level,an opportunity for a company to show its depth and strength, if necessary by creating roles for outstanding dancers that are not in the traditional script.By the time that Ashton created his Cinderella the company had acquired a number of capable male dancers whose skill and ability justified the creation of a role to display their talents particularly as male dancers had been in such short supply during the war.I had always assumed that the role of the Jester was included in Ashton's Cinderella to give Alexander Grant a role but it would seem that the role was originally intended for Brian Shaw.

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I was always under the impression that the Jester was a sort of Benno/Buttons figure as a friend of the Prince.  Certainly when Alexander Grant danced the role, it was not remotely an annoying or 'Soviet' figure, in fact he was rather sad, a character who realised that his own love for Cinderella was hopeless.

 

Nobody has so far mentioned the Nureyev Cinderella for the Paris Opera.  I can't remember it all that well - it was set as a sort of Hollywood fantasy, with Guilem as Cinderella, though I did see it once.  I know it was filmed, and I think shown on BBC TV.

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 I agree there's a lot of 'filler' music to fill. Wondered if some dancing Disney mice could be fit in somewhere ;-)

 

In Bryan Forbes' film musical "The Slipper & The Rose" there's a wonderful sequence where RB dancers dance the mice, frogs etc who become the horses and footmen for Cinderella's crystal coach.  The film looks rather dated now but the ballroom scene includes a lovely waltz (choreographed by Norman Maen, I think) and I always watch it on TV just for the dancing.

 

Linda

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There has not been much (if any) mention of Darius James and Amy Doughty's production of Cinderella for Ballet Cymru which in my book is one of the best. I saw it in Lincoln on 24 June 2015 and have reviewed it for Terpsichore if anyone is interested.

 

Like Wheeldon James has resorted to primary sources and is even more faithful to the original than Wheeldon in that he incorporates references to the original text in the production,  For instance, after the stepmother empties a bowl of lentils onto the floor the birds help her recover them with the refrain:

"The good ones go into the pot,
The bad ones go into your crop."
That text is actually flashed onto the backdrop together with a voice over.
 
Like Nixon, James has commissioned his own score from the young (and in my opinion) very talented Welsh composer Jack White and indeed I prefer it to Feeney's though perhaps not to Prokofiev's. The Welsh needed a simpler score to fit their libretto but I am not sure why Nixon couldn't have used Prokofiev.
 
For the record I have seen Ashton's Cinderella with Fonteyn dancing the title role and Ashton and Helpmann as the sisters. I have also seen Nixon's, Gable's. Matthew Bourne's, Wheeldon's and even a production by the Bristol Russian Youth Ballet Company which starred Glurdjidze and Vargas. I like them all and I look forward to seeing Hampson's later in the year.
 
I must admit to being a bit of a fan of Ballet Cymru which reminds me of Scottish Theatre Ballet (now Scottish Ballet) when it first moved to Glasgow. It has produced some good work and now that it has appointed Marc Brew as an assistant choreographer we can look forward to more.
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I don’t think anyone has mentioned the version of Cinderella that Johann Strauss II composed in 1899, shortly before he died.

 

The scenario updated the story and set it in a fashionable department store owned by Gustav (the Prince character). Cinderella (re-named Grete) is a shop girl, and put upon by her step-mother, the head of the ladies wear department, and her daughters.

 

Northern Ballet (or Northern Ballet Theatre as it would have been then) performed a version of this back in the early 1980s (or even perhaps the late 70s - I'd need to find the programme).  It was a very charming production, I recall, especially the masked ball scene. The late Ross Stretton was in the company then, and danced the part of Gustav.

 

Much more recently the Strauss version has been produced at the Vienna State Opera Ballet, with choreography by Renato Zanella.  That production, with designs by Christian Lacroix, was also given in Athens by the Greek National Opera Ballet, earlier this year.

 

Richard Bonynge made a recording of the full score with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, which appears to be available on Amazon (from third party sellers at any rate). There is also an MP3 album for download.

 

James

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Like Wheeldon James has resorted to primary sources and is even more faithful to the original than Wheeldon in that he incorporates references to the original text in the production,  For instance, after the stepmother empties a bowl of lentils onto the floor the birds help her recover them with the refrain:

That text is actually flashed onto the backdrop together with a voice over."The good ones go into the pot,

The bad ones go into your crop."

 

Diverging from dance completely, that reminds me of a TV series they had when I was young called "Three Gifts for Cinderella", I think it was.  One of those East European productions we used to get once in a while.  Does anyone else remember it?

 

And I've liked Ballet Cymru, from the little I've seen of them.

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