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The Royal Ballet

'Cinderella'

Made in England

by Jeff Kuo

July 7, 2004 -- Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, California

“Cinderella” is a ballet that needs no synopsis. Who doesn’t know the story of the humble but virtuous girl who begins the story sweeping ashes but ends up a princess? Cinderella’s belief in charity, humility, and goodness is so elemental that her faith alone allows her to surmount a family situation so dysfunctional that in other ballets would lead to sexual dissolution (“Pillar of Fire”) or double murder (“Fall River Legend”).

Like the story, many will be familiar with the circumstances of Sir Frederick Ashton’s production. Premiered by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1948, Ashton’s “Cinderella” was not only immediately recognized as a masterpiece, dance history records it as a cornerstone of the British balletic canon. Admirers have pointed out that not only did Ashton create a full length ballet grand enough to stand alongside the great works of the nineteenth century, but one that was particularly acclaimed for its Englishness -- due mainly to the incorporation of the English pantomimic tradition recognized by casting men en travesti for the Stepsisters.

This handsome show is the Royal Ballet’s latest with design by Toer van Schayk, costumes by Christine Haworth, and production by Wendy Ellis Somes. As a touring vehicle, the Royal Ballet chose well as this “Cinderella” not only shows off the company’s dancers to great advantage but shows itself as an organization capable of mounting spectacular productions. Right from its opening we see that this “Cinderella” production is no orphaned daughter making do with rags and hand-me-downs.

In the high concept opening, the curtain rises to reveal a scrim on which is the image of a fireplace with flickering, projected flames. Behind the scrim, stage lights rise to reveal Cinderella and her family, and when the scrim rises we see Cinderella seated, whistfully gazing into the orange flames of the fireplace before her. Is she dreaming of costume balls, elegant dresses, and courtly love? The opening sequence places us in Cinderella’s position – looking into a fireplace, dreaming of happiness and the wish fulfillment of a fairy tale love. Cinderella sees future happiness: we see the company’s new prize production.

But there is more at stake than mere theatrical metaphor. Taking inspiration from Ashton’s celebrated Englishness, van Schayk’s design and Haworth’s costumes are a wonder of nationalistic pride. The production evokes the England of the 18th century, the era which historians have referred to as the 1st British Empire – the empire not of rapacious sea-adventurers but of scientist explorers. Not Sir Francis Drake or John Hawkins but Captain James Cook and the Royal Society. Van Schayk and Haworth have infused Cinderella and her Prince’s land with the grandeur not of the Royal Navy’s ships of the line in the Medway but of English country homes, county seats, and ivys and fragrant rosebuds of the Arcadian countryside. The Four Seasons sequence is a beaux arts world – William Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, etc – where a shepherd boy and a shepherdess girl holding a lamb accompany Spring; a girl in a bonnet with ribbons and a basket from which she throws leaves accompany Autumn; and a little tyke all enclosed in fur accompany Winter.

Yet, at times I wonder if the enjoyment the ballet takes in itself isn’t at times a little tentative. Little details, perhaps, suggest that its ideological solidity is only apparent: the noticeably absent paintings from the Cinderella family walls indicative of a fallen gentry, the less than completely “politically correct” Indian ethnicity of the little servant boy who brings the prized oranges to the royal couple in Act II; the manner in which Cinderella’s honor guard of fairies in blue tutus effects a bloodless coup d’etat in taking over the palace in the wake of her arrival.

Perhaps it is as if in terms of the ballet’s own symbolism, the ballet is hinting that Cinderella’s is not merely the age of the Whig ascendancy, Samuel Johnson, and the Dictionary, but also the era of the ’45, Culloden Moor, and the Black Hole of Calcutta. If the ballet shows us Mary (she who had a little lamb), Little Lord Fauntleroy, Pinkie and Blue Boy, and not the empire of Plassy, the St. George’s field massacre, and Botany Bay, is that so we can have our imperial Britannic majesty’s cake and eat it, too? Suggestive in the context of its post-WWII premiere, then, is the choreographer's omission of the Prince’s Act III search through foreign lands (present in other versions): British post-war acknowledgment of its lost empire?

It is possible - but scarcely necessary - to go on. Such questions are endless – for instance, does the ballet betray anxieties about foreign cultural influence by letting the English pantomimic element (the stepsisters) run amuck within the traditional full length ballet form associated with the Russian heritage? And what of the stepsisters? They preen, they swagger, they even did the Charleston on opening night.

If they seem somehow … proletarian … at least they’re never boring, a danger to which the Prince’s choreography seems to be prone (for a male dancer, the part to have is Jester – every moment he is onstage, you can’t take your eyes off Jose Martin). Judging from accounts of the ballet’s 1948 premiere, the ballet might have actually have been about the stepsisters. Denby waxed eloquent about the smaller stepsister, the “pantomime dame,” played by Ashton himself: “She is the shyest, the happiest, most innocent of Monsters” and whose pathos almost stole the show from Cinderella herself.

But, Ashton’s Shy Stepsister also recalls his penchant for cross-dressing – Ashton as Edith Sitwell, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Gertrude Stein, and especially Queen Victoria.  From "Secret Muses: the Life of Frederick Ashton" about Ashton and Helpmann (the original Bossy Stepsister):

But the genius of the two portrayals lies in their revelation of self-caricature. It’s all there; Ashton’s love of dressing up in Edwardian finery, his early dreams of dancing like Pavlova, his self deprecation and constant insecurity; against which Helpmann’s thirsting, preening egotism – equally true to life – provides the perfect foil. (Kavanaugh 1997)

As sophisticated an artistic construction as van Shayk, Haworth, and Somes have made "Cinderella," at the end of the day it is foremost a ballet in the grandest of the grand molds – a shiney, bejewelled grand ballet from the glittery galaxy backdrop for the Fairy Godmother to Cinderella’s iridescently glass, pumpkin coach and four (like a coupe Christopher Radko might design for Disneyland) to the final sprinkling of gold pixie dust that anoints the royal couple as they walk into the sunset.

Tamara Rojo was the beautiful if somewhat icey Cinderella matched with a young, handsome but subdued Inaki Urlezaga as the Prince. Questions of ideology aside, the Four Seasons variations were among the highlights of the evening, particularly Laura Morera as Autumn and Marianela Nunez as Winter. Christina Elida Salerno was Spring and Lauren Cuthbertson was Summer. Isabel McMeekan’s Fairy Godmother seemed a toned down Lilac Fairy. Jose Martin’s Jester was a crowd favorite. Alastair Marriot and Philip Mosley were terrific as the Stepsisters.

Boris Gruzin conducted the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

Edited .

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