Jump to content

Thoughts on Ashton's Cinderella and other works


Recommended Posts

I don't think mentioned that Cinderella's much loved father is an alcoholic who at one point returns home with his mates from the pub for a drinking session only to be given short shrift by the wife and the girls.  Poor Cinderella has no support at all.

I like Ratmansky's version for his modern eye, interesting choreography, humour and musicality. He states that he followed Prokofiev's notations to the letter for the plot points of the story.

I love many things about the Ashton version.  Cinderella's solos in the first act particularly the broomstick solo; the variations of the seasons which perfectly render the music; the choreography for the stars which is just sublime; and that for the corps de ballet in the ballroom scene which shows his mastery at handling large forces; and finally the pas de deux for Cinderella and the Prince.  

The sticking point for me is that of the Ugly Sisters.  The double pantomime dame element does not work.  And don't get me wrong, I think Widow Simone works perfectly in Fille.  For me it is a question of plausibility. Widow Simone as characterised by Ashton is plausible as the guardian of Lise.  We believe her even though played by a man. It is an acting role with a (very good) clog dance thrown in.

The Ugly sisters on the other hand are for me simply not plausible as the step sisters of Cinderella.  They are far too old,  seeming even older than their father.  And with comedy we want to believe the characters in order to make sense of the story. Their choreography is basic and depends on comedy for its effect.  Nothing wrong with that but the action stops for the comedy set pieces and the ballet goes on before and after them and their comedy schtick. They simply unbalance the flow.

I realise that all this will probably be seen as heretical but for me Ashton's Cinderella despite its marvels, will always remain  flawed.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I often feel that choreographers who grew up with the Ashton version of Cinderella spend too much time trying to avoid Ashtonisms in their own choreography and not enough time listening to the music and responding to it,so it was interesting to see Ratmansky's first Cinderella. I have to say that I was disappointed by it. I suppose that his bag lady Fairy Godmother, men dancing the seasons and the references to more modern styles of popular dancing in the choreography must have seemed innovative at the time of its premiere.But what, presumably, seemed amusing and innovative in 2002 came over as a rather heavy handed attempt to be different at the performance I saw. The Fairy Godmother was given very little to do and the choreography for the seasons suffered from the very limited dance vocabulary that Russian choreographers use for male dancers. Indeed little of the choreography seemed to have much to do with the music which is ironic as Prokofiev set out to provide a score that was obviously "dansant". 

 

As far as the Ashton version is concerned, I too find the ugly sisters tedious and unamusing but I think that this has more to do with the coarse way in which they are now performed rather than defects in the characters as revealed by the choreography since I feel exactly the same way about the Jester who Alexander Grant insisted was a character not a role; Widow Simone and Alain in Fille. The problem with all of these roles is that the company really has very few dancers who are capable of performing demicharacter roles.

 

The ugly sisters are now played as the most outrageous pantomime dames with costumes to match without much consideration for the jokes in the choreography, The small timid , sister as played by Ashton was facially a bit like Edith Sitwell with dainty eighteenth century choreography while the bossy one had more flamboyant nineteenth century style choreography. Recent casting decisions have  done nothing to halt the decline into coarseness.  Perhaps the answer would be to give the roles to a couple of woman as was intended originally and happened for a couple of years in the late 1950's. The Jester who, originally I am assured, had an air of melancholy about him is now performed by most of the company's dancers as a role in which to show off technique, akin to the soviet jester in Swan Lake. Not a character but a mere "leg machine".

 

Personally I do not find the current Widow Simones at Covent Garden much better.The role is now played very broadly as if pulling faces and heaving up her bosom is all that there is to the character. No one seems to understand that the small details matter, for example little or nothing is  now made of Simone trying to discourage Colas by throwing vegetables at him and then pausing  just before she throws the plant plot and plant at Colas and clearly deciding that she is not going to throw the pot because it costs money. Again it is a long time since I have seen a dancer who can actually perform the clog dance properly, The role requires someone who is able to play Lise's mother as a peasant woman of a certain age rather than playing Old Mother Riley. And what is one to say about poor Alain? For the main part that role is not performed much better but then the company has real problems in casting Ashton's demicharacter roles and those created for Alexander Grant pose particular problems as they  require a virtuoso technique combined with theatrical flair and the ability to create a character physically and to create a mood.  Current fashions in ballet  do not suggest that things are likely to improve any time soon.

  • Like 9
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Recent casting decisions have  done nothing to halt the decline into coarseness.  

 

 

I was recently asked to 'define vulgarity'.  I doubt that anyone at that current hand understood my reply - but you might well I'm sure, FLOSS.  I said in response: 'Wayne Sleep in Ashton's CINDERELLA'.  That sums it up for me ... especially when you'd think he might at least know better.  Nothing worse than that teeth-grinding land of the 'un-funny' (especially when those wreaking the havoc believe they are themselves brilliant.)  Poor Sir Fred .... Now it appears even the Trust set up in his name is toothless in terms of making any substantive reparation vis a vis the ultimate execution of his masterworks..  What's a self-respecting  legend to do?  ..... Look to Balanchine's example I suppose ... That I guess and/or pray.  Perhaps - as you suggest FLOSS - it really is TOO LATE in some very meaningful ways for Ashton.  So unfair.  Let that be a lesson to all balletic geniuses who follow.     .  

 

One thing is clear to me at least, FLOSS:  Your posting (No. 38) is more than apt.  It is entirely potent.  

 

Bless you.  

Edited by Bruce Wall
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Couldn't agree more with FLOSS, Ashton's ballets are starting to fall apart from the lack of care, cash-cows for the copyright owners and cynically thrown onto the stage with a contemptuous lack of integrity.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Whenever I have expressed my reservations about Ashton's Cinderella to more knowledgeable ballet-going friends they always insisted that the original cast were wonderfully amusing and touching without being vulgar.  I have watched the video of the original cast and remain unconvinced. 

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

And what is one to say about poor Alain? For the main part that role is not performed much better but then the company has real problems in casting Ashton's demicharacter roles and those created for Alexander Grant pose particular problems as they  require a virtuoso technique combined with theatrical flair and the ability to create a character physically and to create a mood.  

 

Floss, I would take issue with you only one of your finely tuned observations:

 

A contemporary of Alexander Grant in the company told me that Grant was not a virtuoso, he scarcely had any technique. He barely did any warm up before a performance. His Alain was funny because he was technically unable to perform the steps fluently.

 

The - well, a - reason why we don't laugh with Alain's predicament today is that current dancers find the role unchallenging technically. And of course, that elusive sense of character is missing.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

 

 

 

The - well, a - reason why we don't laugh with Alain's predicament today is that current dancers find the role unchallenging technically. And of course, that elusive sense of character is missing.  

 

 

I was both amused and touched by the performance of Ludovic Ondiviela as Alain. But we are getting a long way from the topic now, I know.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

The - well, a - reason why we don't laugh with Alain's predicament today is that current dancers find the role unchallenging technically. And of course, that elusive sense of character is missing.  

 

 

 

I know we are totally o/t but I must commend the performances as Alain by both James Barton and Kit Holder in BRB's latest run of Fille in June.  Both play the character as a gauche youth rather than a simpleton and both are very moving in the role.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have never seen Alexander Grant bettered in this particular role.

 

Sometimes there is just something inherently funny about some people ......I don't really know ...some inner thing they give off so can't really be copied because it's so much part of that person.

 

I saw Ashton and Helpmann as the ugly sisters in Cinderella and their humour was more gentle .......smiley amusing rather than laugh out loud funny though .....and again probably something that the two of them just hit off each other together at the time.

 

The same with Marguerite and Armand ........this ballet does really require the two principals to have a VERY VERY good rapport and why it will be very hard to better the original dancers and why I felt sorry for Vishneva this week as she was not with a partner she had this level of rapport with to do the ballet the justice it deserved. (Not his fault either as a last minute replacement it turns out)

 

Ashton was obviously an expert at capturing the particular qualities of the dancers he chose to choreograph on so some of his works may suffer for this.

 

As I said earlier Cinderella has never been one of my favourites and I do feel very wary criticising any Artist like Ratmansky so was very relieved to hear that he had his own reservations. Anyway it was more the Production than the actual choreography that got up my nose so to speak.

That PM I had two ladies to my right who obviously knew each other. One left after the first interval and the other after the second.........so feelings were high!!!

Having paid £70 for my seat I thought I'd hang around for the whole thing at least ........and glad I did as it was worth it for the final pas de deux if not the other goings on!!

 

Sometimes there can be too much dancing if I dare say such a thing. For example in Ratmansky's other work of this week the Shostakovitch piece ......the first and third acts were so apt with the music however in the second Act where there is a lot of stillness in the music even though there was a lovely pas de deux going on there was too much else going on as well.........and however brilliant the choreography may have been for the other dancers it took away the beauty of that music which as I said in my other post I thought Macmillan had remained true to.......as I think he caught that stillness aspect. Sometimes less is more ......sorry about this too often used phrase!

 

I will be very keen to see Ratmansky's revised version of this ballet anyway.

Sometimes though I am not sure why choreographers want to create a new ballet of one already in the repertoire eg why do Cinderella in the first place if the company already has this ballet there are other fairy tales and subject matters around!! And especially using the SAME music as previously used.......I believe Northern Ballets Cinderella at least uses different music.

 

I'm thinking of starting a thread with naming pieces of music one would like to see choreographed!!

 

Just to add only in this weeks Sunday times Culture magazine Martin Amis says "my early books appal me"

This must be how some choreographers feel on occasions too.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sadly we haven't seen the original Cinderella (by Christopher Gable) since the late 1990s.  David Nixon's version was new last December and is touring again this Autumn (I am very excited about that!!)

 

Both productions are wonderful.  Sometimes Ballet Central perform a duet from Christopher Gable's production - the fireside duet.  It is so beautiful I always cry!

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

A film of a live theatrical performance whether ballet, opera or drama is inevitably a sort of ghost of that performance. Elements of the actual performance are missing, firstly the artists' abilities to create mood and character and secondly what the audience itself brings to the performance. If the work is essentially abstract then these losses may have very little impact on what the viewer of the film experiences watching the work when compared to the experience of the audience watching the piece being filmed. But when there is any element of mood setting, story telling or humour then the loss can be so great that it makes it impossible to judge what effect particular dancers had on the audience, Also you have the problem that you are seeing a performance close to that was not intended to be seen in that way but that had to project to the back of the Amphi.

 

.Watching a film of a ballet made fifty years ago may tell you a great deal about how a piece was performed and the fashion in ballet technique at the time,in the case of the Sibley Dowell Cinderella it may give some very helpful pointers as to what everyone of a certain age means when they talk about the "English style" but it will not tell you why the audience found the antics of the ugly sisters amusing. What you will see is a certain element of restraint , no toppling down the stairs, no "toupe incident", no playing for belly laughs in the mistaken belief that they are performing in a rather poor pantomime. I think that you might get a better idea of how the ugly sisters fit into the ballet and how essential it is that they are played as Massine style characters rather than a  down market variety turn from the version made for American television where they are played by Ashton and MacMillan.

 

I tend to believe older ballet goers who I know when they talk about performances in the past but only when they are people whose responses to performances that I have seen are not dissimilar to mine. People  who were in the auditorium on the same day and who did not see a totally different ballet. 

 

I agree with the comments about Wayne Sleep and vulgarity but then I think that he transformed the joker into a role that looks like it came from a totally different ballet. And I always preferred Brian Bertcher to Wayne Sleep as Puck in the Dream because he put across the textural references in the role that I found missing when Sleep danced the role. 

 

I am not sure whether not doing a proper warm up is how one assesses a dancer's abilities. I recall hearing that Alicia Markova did not do one either. All I know is that I have never seen a better lead Czardas, Petrushka, Madge,Bottom,Alain or anyone better in any of the roles that he created that I saw him perform. I am willing to believe older ballet goers who saw him in the Neapolitan dance as Byraxis, Tirrennio and the barber in Mam'zelle Angot and other roles when they say that there has not been his equal since. I think the point is that I am not talking about a dancer who gives an exhibition of technique but one who had the ability not just to create mood but character to the extent that he seemed to become the character he portrayed and made the audience feel everything that his character was feeling so that for example the Bottom's dream section of the Dream was a lot more than pointing at bushes and shoulder shrugging. 

  • Like 6
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Very interesting, thank you, Floss.

 

I think that you might get a better idea of how the ugly sisters fit into the ballet and how essential it is that they are played as Massine style characters rather than a  down market variety turn from the version made for American television where they are played by Ashton and MacMillan.

Is that one available on DVD? I get a little confused by some of these "heritage" recordings.

 

because he put across the textural references in the role that I found missing

Floss, I know this wasn't your intention at all, but you've absolutely put your finger on i) why I don't find Act I of the Balanchine "Dream" satisfying (I think I deleted from my writeup of that the bit where I complained that I couldn't "hear" any of the Shakespeare text in the ballet), ii) what I've sometimes felt was missing from not only Puck but some of the other characters in performances of Ashton's "The Dream" that I've seen in recent - and possibly not-so-recent - years, and iii) why I *have* appreciated other performances in those roles, even if they may not necessarily technically have been "the best".

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As far as I know the DVD is available its the one with the picture of Fonteyn on the front wearing the Macles costume.The Macles designs are interesting because they are not the sort of standard ballet designs that we have seen in subsequent productions. I think that they were abandonded because they were seen as reeking of the nineteen forties which of course they do. Well you could say that it has been down hill all the way since then as I do not think that any of.the intervening redesigns have been regarded as wholly satisfactory.

 

I know a lot of people who saw the ballet with its original designs who have said that reverting to the original designs would help to tone things down a bit.But I am afraid it needs a lot more than that. I wonder what Wendy Ellis Somes is thinking of when she supervises revivals of the ballet? Perhaps she has read too many of those rather lazy accounts of the ballet which refer to the english pantomime tradition and has started to believe that Ashton really was trying to recreate pantomime in ballet terms rather than creating a modern take on the nineteenth century russian tradition.

.

Unlike the MacMillan ballets where one person controls everything and is prepared to withdraw a licence from a company that  chooses to modify a ballet to conform to the local idea of correct ballet technique the Ashton ballets are dispersed among at least eight people only four of whom have direct experience of dancing in his works. I wonder how much say they have over casting or how interested they are in such matters?

 

A major problem is the current way of casting ballets.  You never get a cast of exemplars which give younger members of the company a standard to aim for and show them both what the ballet should look like and recreate its style and mood . This I think is true of the Ashton repertory and also of some of the classics. When did you last see a Sleeping Beauty where all the fairy variations and the Lilac Fairy were performed so well that you understood what Ashton meant when he spoke about taking lessons from Petipa? When he spoke in those terms I do not think that he was talking about slow motion exhibitions of technique. 

 

In Ashton's time and while Michael Somes was in charge of the Ashton  repertory you had to wait until the right cast was available for ballets such as Scenes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations but it was always worth the wait because there were no compromises in order to secure a second cast.  The Russians seem to handle the maintenance of their repertory better than we do but they have problems when it comes to ballets where the choreography does not conform to what those brought up in the Vaganova tradition deem correct. Margueritte and Armand was performed with a " foreign accent^ much as the Royal Ballet used to dance Balanchine. How long before it goes native, and if it does will anyone care?

  • Like 5
Link to comment
Share on other sites

The original designer for Ashton's Cinderella was of course not Macles but Jean Denis Malcles.I am not sure where I got the name  Macles from. Anyway his designs, or versions of them, were used until the 1960s. I say versions of them because I know that I have seen a photograph said to be of Moira Shearer in Cinderella wearing a costume that looks very different from the one worn by Fonteyn on the DVD. While Fonteyn's costume was more in the standard ballerina style of costume than Shearer's it still marked her out as downtrodden unlike the pretty rags worn in the current production.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I watched parts of the Cojocaru/Kobborg Cinderella( which I recorded from TV) yesterday and must say it looked charming after the Mariinsky version, don't like the way the Sisters have become overplayed and vulgar though (Wayne Sleep and Anthony Dowell), but Ashton's ballet brings out the beauty of the music, I love the section from Cinderella's second solo, fairy godmother's solo, the Seasons variations and waltz, to the end of the act, an Ashton gem, it restored my faith in the ballet!  I don't particularly like the pantomime dame tradition but it's preferable to anything else I've ever seen for the Ugly Sisters, Frederick Ashton himself was rather sweet as the timid one. 

  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Even when I first started watching it in the 90s, there was a note of pathos to the Jester which seems to be entirely absent now, even with those dancers who I thought might have been sensitive enough to put it in (there are others from whom I wouldn't even expect such things).

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Anyone watching the Royal Ballet performing an Ashton ballet is likely to believe that they are seeing

the work as Ashton created it. Are they right to do so? Might they be more certain of the choreographic

authenticity of what they were seeing if it was a work by MacMillan ?

 

The fact that a work is performed by the company that it was created for does not guarantee that the

choreographer would recognise what is put on stage as his work. Perhaps this is inevitable as there

are fashions in ballet technique and aesthetics as in everything else.

 

I doubt for example that Petipa would recognise much of what today is put on stage in his name. We knowthat major changes were made to Don Quixote during his lifetime because he complained about them in

his letters. We also know that the jester in Swan Lake was a Soviet addition and that Sleeping Beauty'sfish dives were added in the 1920s. Does the fact that Petipa's works were "improved" and "modernised"

in the twentieth century mean that it is inevitable that the same will happen to the works of the majortwentieth century choreographers such as Ashton? Do MacMillan's works stand a better chance of survival

in a recognisable form at least in the foreseeable future because he feels closer in time and dancers

still want to dance in them?

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Along the same lines, I doubt Bournonville would recognise much of his 'work' these days. I agree about Petipa and I think one thing which would flummox both Ashton and him would be the trend for very high extensions.

 

Macmillan is extremely fortunate to have such an intelligent, devoted and forceful advocate as Deborah Macmillan guarding his legacy. Here is a lady who will not compromise over standards and all credit to her for that. What a tragedy that the Ashton rep is so well served.

Edited by Two Pigeons
  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

And, many times the choreographers themselves made many changes - often major ones.  Sometimes they changed the choreography as their vision of the music and design changed, or they changed it to suit new casts, etc., or a particular dancers gifts (or lack thereof).    

 

 Balanchine and Fokine come to mind In ballets such as "Apollo" and "Les Sylphides." 

 

While strict guardianship of a choreographer's work by his/her heirs is a good thing, it also means that the work is frozen in time.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

 Balanchine and Fokine come to mind In ballets such as "Apollo" and "Les Sylphides." 

 

 

 

It's wonderful that the Balanchine Trust still remounts the various variations built within so many of his widely different ballets (e.g., the plethora, say, in Balanchine's Swan Lake alone) such as were created for so many widely different dancers.  They have done their utmost to serve the canon as an effective whole; striving to best fulfill not only the needs of its freshly developing audience but time itself.  A fine model.    

Edited by Bruce Wall
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Notation and filming does not ensure that ballets are performed in the correct style or save them from

coarsening. That requires a real understanding of what the choreographer wanted and the desire and

ability to convey this to the next generation of dancers. Alexander Grant said in an interview that

dancers today were concerned with technique and did not think that the detail that Ashton put into his ballets were important although they were put there in order to show the characterisation.

 

It is of course true that choreographers may change choreography. Ashton changed the Winter Fairy solo

that Beryl Grey had danced: altered some of Oberon's choreography to accommodate David Wall and changed

parts of Lise's final solo for Leslie Collier simply because he liked the way that she had danced them in another work. What I am interested in is how the style and mood of a ballet are preserved. I am sure

that those looking after MacMillan's works are concerned to achieve this and are, at present, able to

do so. This is due in large part to the fact that there is one person in charge of the works and those

assisting in teaching and coaching them are still for the main part people who had direct experience of

working with him and his style.

 

By contrast Ashton's works are spread among an increasingly large group of beneficiaries fewer and

fewer of whom have had any direct involvement with ballet let alone the performance of Ashton's works.

In Following Sir Fred's Steps one of the contributors described coaching dancers and who were then told

by someone who had nothing to do with the coaching to" camp it up". In discussions of the staging of

Ashton's works there is usually a great deal of discussion about epaulement and Cecchetti technique but

little is said about the impact of dancers trained in Vaganova technique and their willingness to adopt

another style of dancing.

 

In a dance world where technique is seen by many as an end in itself and dancers who slow music down to

squeeze in an extra turn or hold an extended pose are praised there seems little room for dance that

creates mood or character. As far developments in technique are concerned why do we think that they

should be incorporated into older works? A singer who sang Rossini or Mozart as if they were Puccini

would be laughed of the stage.The world of classical music long ago abandoned re-orchestrating Bach and

Beethoven on the basis that they would have composed for the late romantic symphony orchestra if it

had been available to them. Is not it about time that ballet abandoned this sort of approach too?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

l

  • Like 4
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...