It’s been a year of Cinderellas!
We started this blog two years ago with The Nutcracker Now & Then. Last December we published a second Nutcracker post. However this year, Cinderella seems a more relevant ballet for our Christmas discussion.
On the other hand, Cinderella seems to be a ballet for all seasons: at the start of 2019 Scottish Ballet (SB) were performing their production by Christopher Hampson; in the summer English National Ballet (ENB) performed Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, but in the autumn toured the original version, choreographed on Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet for the proscenium stage; shortly after this Northern Ballet (NB) started to tour their 2013 production by David Nixon, which they will continue to perform over the Christmas period and then again in the spring months of 2020.
Of course, Cinderella adaptations that are based on the famous score by Sergei Prokofiev have the four seasons built into the structure of the work, if the choreographer chooses to employ the music in that way. Wheeldon and ENB took advantage of this structure when adapting his 2012 choreography for the huge arena of the Albert Hall by doubling the number of dancers for the Four Seasons divertissement making it into a magnificent spectacle. But nevertheless, with its magical tree, vibrant blues and greens, the fantastical birds and mythical Tree Gnomes, it seems to us to be imbued with a sense of warmth and fecundity that makes us associate it more with spring and summer.
The same might also be said for Hampson’s 2007 staging of Prokoviev’s Cinderella with SB, in which a rose planted by Cinderella …
… becomes the motif…, blooming into swirling curlicues and trailing blossom, becoming the backdrop of the ballet’s scenes of magic. There’s a corps de ballet of roses, and it’s a rose, as much as a dropped slipper, that reunite this Cinders with her prince. (Anderson)
In this way the magic of nature is woven into the fabric of the ballet, and more literally into the fabric of Cinderella’s gown for the ball, woven together by “silk moths, grasshoppers and spiders” as it is (Lowes).
In contrast to this emphasis on nature’s warmer months, NB’s Cinderella is set for the main part in a fantasy Moscow winter time, affording the opportunity for visits to the winter market populated by the likes of jugglers, acrobats and a magician, skating scenes on the Crystal Lake, and huskies for Cinderella’s sleigh to take her to the ball.
The atmospheric score composed by Philip Feeney, and Duncan Hayler’s sparkling set, with its Fabergé-inspired ballroom (new this year) create a quite different world of magic to that created by Daniel Brodie, Natasha Katz and Basil Twist for ENB, and the art nouveau realm of Tracy Grant Lord’s designs for SB.
One of the things that these three Cinderellas all provide is a back story that helps to create a sense of humanness in the characters, making them more than stock figures or archetypes.
Both Hampson (SB) and Wheeldon (ENB) show their heroine in childhood grieving over her Mother’s grave. But the everlasting bond between mother and daughter is symbolised by Cinderella’s tears generating new life: the blossoming of Hampson’s rose garden and the growth of Wheeldon’s magical tree. Hampson’s Prince is portrayed as lonely, without anyone to whom he can relate (“The Story of Cinderella”), while ENB’s Prince Guillaume seems to enjoy his life with his childhood friend Benjamin too much to want to commit to marriage – until, of course, he meets Cinderella. A delightful scene occurs in Act I as the result of the familiar trope of swapping identities: taking Guillaume for a destitute pauper, Cinderella offers him food, shelter and company – a mark of her compassionate nature. But as they clumsily dance together on the table, the attraction between them is unmistakable.
Nixon’s (NB) Cinderella meets Prince Mikhail in childhood, but the most significant thing we discover about her is that she is partially responsible for her Father’s accidental death; this perhaps accounts for her Stepmother’s antipathy towards her. Yet, despite her burden of guilt, the grown-up Cinderella radiates delight in the world of the market and the Crystal Lake. The innovations in characterisation that make this production feel fresh and closer to life, despite the wintry glitter and sparkle, are Cinderella’s eventual bold defiance of her Stepmother, and the Prince’s initial derisory rejection of Cinderella when he discovers her lowly status as a servant to the household. The Prince’s “upper-class bad-manners moment”, as Amanda Jennings calls it (37), felt quite uncomfortable to watch; however, so poignantly did Joseph Taylor portray Mikhail’s remorse at his own lack of empathy and insight, that there could be no doubting his love for Cinderella.
As the first three-act British ballet, Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella, still regularly performed by The Royal Ballet (RB), is without a doubt the most celebrated Cinderella in the history of British ballet. And without a doubt this is in part attributable to the number of prestigious ballerinas who have performed the eponymous role, amongst them Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn, Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Maria Almeida, Darcey Bussell, Viviana Durante, Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru.
But despite its status in the British Ballet canon, Ashton’s Cinderella is to some extent an exception, especially for the year 1979, which is where we focus our attention now. We chose this particular year, because not only did the RB stage Ashton’s Cinderella that December, but both NB and SB mounted brand new productions – by Robert de Warren and Peter Darrell respectively.
It is no secret that Ashton choreographed his Cinderella as a tribute to late 19th century ballet. The divertissements of the Seasons are reminiscent of the Prologue Fairies from The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), with their quirky, idiosyncratic movements that portray the feel of the season, while the Stars remind us of Ivanov’s Snowflakes, with their sharp, spikey, shimmering movements and patterns that bring to mind the constellations of the night sky. The pantomime dame style “Ugly Sisters” could be comical renditions of Carabosse, as they plot to ensure Cinderella’s continued subjugation and to deny her her destiny, earned by the beauty of her being.
Like Desiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella’s Prince arrives late in the proceedings and has to pursue Cinderella through the Stars that form barriers between them. Like a 19thcentury classical ballerina role, Cinderella herself is the focus of the stage action and the narrative, with a string of solos and duets in different styles. No ballerina we have seen has ever competed with Tamara Rojo in portraying the two faces of Cinderella: the downtrodden but creative, imaginative and kindly young woman on the one hand, and the ideal vision of the fairy princess on the other.
But in 1979 NB offered a quite different interpretation of the Cinderella story. De Warren based his choreography on the 1901 score by Johan Strauss Jr., the only ballet score ever written by the composer, and adapted the scenario from Heinrich Regel’s original libretto. The theme of the seasons was retained in the name of the department store where the action is located. Here Cinderella is employed in the millinery workshop and bullied by her Stepmother, who is head of the department. However, as far as we can make out, there were no fairies representing the seasons, although magical doves (reminding us of Wheeldon’s fantasy birds) help Cinderella with her chores so that she can go to the ball.
The ball has been organised by Gustav, the owner of the Four Seasons, for his staff. What we find so enchanting about this telling of the story is that Gustav is so in love with Cinderella, despite her lowly position, that he makes excuses to go to the millinery department to catch a glimpse of her, and seeks her out at the ball, where everyone is disguised by masks.
Darrell’s 1979 SB Cinderella shared similarities with the NB production in that it also used an alternative musical score to Ashton’s, one arranged by Bramwell Tovey from music by Gioachino Rossini, including some numbers from his Cinderella opera La Cenerentola (1817). The libretto was also based loosely on the scenario to the opera (Tovey) and evidently foregrounded the Prince. The first source we found on this production was a review by John Percival which struck us with both its title “She knows a good ‘un when she sees him”, and with the first lines:
The Hero of Peter Darrell’s ballet Cinderella is the quiet, gentle Prince Ramiro, who is more interested in books than court occasions; you could almost imagine him talking to the plants in the palace gardens …
This version of Cinderella in fact started with the Prince, who, finding the preparations for the masked ballet tedious, changes places with his equerry Dandini; and as in the current production, an instant bond is kindled between Cinderella and the Prince, despite the disguise. As Percival emphasises “Cinderella knows real worth when she sees it” (“A Scottish Cinderella” 20). Once again, nature plays an integral part in the staging, with Exotic Birds, Fire Fairies and Dew Fairies listed in the cast, and Cinderella arriving at the ball in an exquisite cloak resembling butterfly wings.
Choreographers past and present have drawn on different sources and ideas in order to make their particular Cinderella fitting for their context.
Yet, no matter which adaptation you see, Cinderella is a ballet about different kinds of magic, love and beauty, as well as the everyday miracle of nature, with its message of hope and faith in the constant renewal of life. As such it as an ideal Christmas ballet, as well as a ballet for all seasons.
© British Ballet Now & Then
This post is dedicated to Kelly Kilner, Rosie’s Angel of Islington – a living example of everyday magic.
We would like to thank Graham Watts for his help with our research on Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … It’s an exciting anniversary season for English National Ballet, so we must take a look at the history of the company – its directors, repertoire and dancers.
Anderson,Zoë. “Cinderella, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, review: Romantic production combines glamour and liveliness”. The Independent, 24 Dec. 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre- dance/reviews/cinderella-festival-theatre-edinburgh-review-romantic- production-combines-glamour-and-liveliness-a6785011.html. Accessed 22 Dec. 2019.
Jennings, Amanda. “Cinderella”. Dance Europe, no. 244, Nov. 2019, pp. 35-37.
Lowes, Susan. “Cinderella”, All Edinburgh Theatre, 8 Dec. 2015, http://www.alledinburghtheatre.com/cinderella-scottish-ballet-review-2015/. Accessed 22 Dec. 2019.
Percival, John. “A Scottish Cinderella”. Dance and Dancers, vol. 30, no. 12, 1979, pp. 18-22.
—. “She knows a good ‘un when she sees him”, The Independent, 17 Dec. 2019, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/dance-she-knows-a-good-un-when-she-sees-him-1191878.html. Accessed 22 Dec. 2019.
“The Story of Cinderella”. Scottish Ballet, 2019, https://www.scottishballet.co.uk/tv/the-story-of-cinderella. Accessed 22 Dec. 2019.
Tovey, Bramwell. “The Music for Cinderella”. Cinderella. Programme. His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 1979.