Is this ballet for you?
Skip if: Certain people find Prokofiev’s haunting score a tad too moody. And you may want to skip the Ashton version if Panto interspersed with dancing puts you off.
For Cinderella, a ballerina who can “bend it like Ashton”. For the Prince, a Danseur Noble.
There are records of ballet versions of Cinderella being performed as early as 1813 in Vienna and 1822 in London, and of a notable production by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Enrico Cecchetti for the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1893. With music by Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell this version famously showcased Pierina Legnani and her 32 fouettées en tournant (a feat which would later be incorporated into the ballet Swan Lake) for the first time.
Aided by the fact that none of the Petipa/Ivanov choreography had survived and boasting Sergei Prokofiev’s memorable score, Rostislav Zakharov’s 1945 ballet for the Bolshoi is seen as the first landmark Cinderella. Zakharov was the Bolshoi’s principal choreographer. He conceived the work at a time when the Soviets were in a celebratory mood: the German World War II invasion had been beaten back and a new ballet was needed which could serve as a metaphor for triumph over tyranny. Prokofiev and librettist Nikolai Volkov were guided by Charles Perrault‘s version of the story and influenced by Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores, which so perfectly matched the structure of Petipa’s choreography, to create a definitive score for Cinderella. Another factor that helped cement the success of Zakharov’s version was its association with Galina Ulanova who became legendary in the leading role, even though the ballet had been originally created on Olga Lepeshinskaya.
One year after Zakharov, Konstantin Sergeyev premiered his own version for the Kirov Ballet using the same Prokofiev score. Another Soviet ballet legend, Natalia Dudinskaya, created the role of Cinderella.
The Ashton version
Having just triumphed at Covent Garden with the post-war Sleeping Beauty the Royal Ballet now needed to extend its repertory. Looking at ballet scores for inspiration Sir Frederick Ashton first thought of Delibes’ Sylvia but then decided to focus on Prokofiev’s Cinderella because he sympathised with the score’s intentions and emotions “the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love”. At that time (1948) wartime restrictions had been lifted so the Company had enough resources to allow Ashton to realise a tribute to Petipa and experiment with his first full-length piece.
Ashton brought to his Cinderella a very British flavour. Unlike the Russian versions he opted to feature the stepsisters in travesty to honour pantomime tradition. He also did away with the figure of the wicked stepmother and had Cinderella living with the ugly sisters and a feeble father instead. The spoiled stepsisters were originally played by Ashton and Robert Helpmann. They dance steps that are full of references to 19th century ballet classics like Sleeping Beauty (spot the “fishdive” with the bossy sister when she is dancing at the ball) and Don Quixote, perhaps a metaphor of Ashton himself aspiring to those balletic ideals. Incidentally Ashton’s own shy stepsister had a nose like Edith Sitwell‘s – a temperamental 20th century poet/dreamer and lonely figure.
Besides the comedy provided by the stepsisters and their entourage, there is plenty of room for drama and classicism, as in the scenes where Cinderella dances alone thinking of the happier days in the past, the solos for the season fairies and the waltz for the corps. There is a lush Grand Pas de Deux for the Prince and Cinderella which takes place at the ball in act 2, rather than at their wedding celebration in act 3 as would have been typical of Petipa. Ashton also decided to cut the Prince’s round-the-world search for Cinderella which featured in the Russian versions, as well as the divertissements that used to follow it (representing all the faraway lands visited by the Prince in his obsessive search). He completed his Cinderella in 6 weeks. He had intended the ballet to be another vehicle for Margot Fonteyn but when injury kept her from stage the ballet was created on Moira Shearer with Michael Somes as her Prince.
The original decor for Ashton’s Cinderella was by Jean-Denis Malclès, and since then the ballet has been redesigned three times. The current version features scenery by Toer van Schayk and costumes by Christine Haworth. Nowadays the ballet is staged under supervision of ex-Royal Ballet dancer Wendy Ellis Somes, widow of Michael Somes and heir to the ballet’s rights.
While this synopsis addresses specifically the Ashton version, the storyline tends to remain more or less the same in other traditional versions of the ballet.
A room in the house of Cinderella’s father
Cinderella sits alone by the fire. Her father reads and near him Cinderella’s two ugly stepsisters are sewing a scarf excited about preparations to a ball. The two sisters soon are bickering about who will wear the scarf which ends up torn into two. Left alone Cinderella recalls the happy days when her mother was still alive. An old haggard woman comes to the house begging for money and Cinderella is the only one who takes pity and offers her some bread. As the old woman leaves purveyors arrive to offer the sisters their goods and services. A dancing master comes to teach them the gavotte but Cinderella is excluded from the lesson and must keep to her chores.
The sisters hurry with their makeup and dressing and depart for the ball. In the back we see the shadow of the beggar woman who now materialises as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. The room disappears and Cinderella is transported into the fairy godmother’s realm where she meets fairies of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Each of them dances a short solo where they offer Cinderella their seasonal gifts. Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a beautiful gown and a pumpkin turns into a splendid carriage.
Cinderella sets off for the ball under instructions of the fairy godmother that she must leave before midnight when the magic will wear off.
The ballroom at the Prince’s palace
The court-jester is entertaining the guests at the palace. As the stepsisters arrive they are paired with two equally whimsical suitors with whom they dance inelegantly. The Prince (and his four friends) arrive just before we hear a mysterious music which heralds the approach of Cinderella’s carriage. She makes a grand entrance slowly descending the main staircase en pointe her gaze lost as if in a dream. Everyone is captivated by her beauty, especially the Prince with whom she dances a very regal Pas de Deux. Cinderella is dizzy with happiness which she expresses in her variation full of turns and fast chaînés.
The clock strikes midnight and Cinderella tries to flee but the guests and Prince try to prevent her from leaving. In the rush she leaves behind her slipper.
Cinderella is back in her father’s kitchen, dressed in rags. She recalls the ball and wonders whether it was all a dream but when she finds a sparkling shoe in her apron she is convinced that it all must have happened.
The Prince comes searching for the owner of the slipper (some versions feature the Prince traveling to faraway lands in his search). The Ugly Sisters try to squeeze their rather large feet into it. As she assists the elder sister in pulling the shoe which has become stuck Cinderella’s own other slipper falls from her apron. The Prince, realising she is the one, asks her to try on the shoes which are a perfect fit. The stepsisters now try to atone for their bad behaviour towards Cinderella who forgives them and touches them lovingly.
Cinderella and her Prince dance a triumphant finale surrounded by the fairy godmother and her entourage. They walk off into their happy ever after as gold dust falls upon them.
Other versions (set to Prokofiev’s score)
- Ben Stevenson’s for the National Ballet, Washington (1970). Like Ashton, Stevenson cast the stepsisters as a travesty role and excluded the stepmother who appears in the Russian versions. He also excises the Prince’s voyages in search of Cinderella.
- Rudolf Nureyev for Paris Opera Ballet (1986). A completely different take on the story. It features an alcoholic father, a tyrannical stepmother and two spiteful stepsisters. The heroine (role created by Sylvie Guillem) dreams of escape and stardom in Hollywood. The prince is a movie star, the fairy “godfather” is a Producer and the ball is a movie screen-test where the young lovers meet.
- Michael Corder for ENB (1996) Currently in ENB’s repertoire this version is a return to the classicism of Zakharov’s original. The stepsisters are played by women and the third act features dance divertissements and the Prince’s travels to various lands in his search for Cinderella. Designs are by David Walker.
- Alexei Ratmansky for the Mariinsky (2002). A modernist and very fresh production of the ballet with a distinctive 20s feel and innovative movement.
- James Kudelka for National Ballet of Canada (2004). Currently in repertoire of various North American companies including ABT, Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet in addition to NBC. Kudelka balances the story so that both main characters “rescue each other”: falling for Cinderella the Prince escapes the superficial life of his court and she the tyranny and lack of tenderness at home.
- Ashley Page for Scottish Ballet (2005) Page emphasises the fashion-greedy aspect of the fable, setting it in 18th century France, with lavish designs by Antony McDonald. In Judith Mackrell’s words “with a stylistic gloss of Galliano and Westwood, this is a fashionista’s paradise of lace and crinoline, colour and fabric.”
- Yuri Possokhov for the Bolshoi (2006) This version re-imagines the WWII context of Prokofiev’s score, introducing the ballet in the dual worlds of reality and fantasy. The “Storyteller” (Prokofiev) is seen composing, and Ptashka, his muse (an allusion to Prokofiev’s wife, Lina, who was sent to the gulag during Stalin’s regime) enacts the tale of Cinderella.
- Birmingham Royal Ballet (2010). David Bintley is currently choreographing a new version of Cinderella for BRB to premiere during Christmas season 2010. It will feature designs by John Macfarlane. You can read a press release at ballet.co and there’s a Q&A with Bintley on his ideas for this Cinderella on BRB’s website.
- Alina Cojocaru dances with a broom in Act I [link]
- Christina Salerno as Spring Fairy, Lauren Cuthbertson as Summer Fairy, Laura Morera as Autumn Fairy and Zenaida Yanowsky as Winter Fairy [link]
- Alina Cojocaru in Cinderella’s Act II Variation [link]
- Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in the Act II Pas De Deux [link]
- Short Fragment with Anthony Dowell as the Prince, Antoinette Sibley as Cinderella with Sir Frederick Ashton & Robert Helpmann as the Ugly stepsisters. [Part 1] and [Part 2]
- Agnès Letestu and José Martínez in Nureyev’s Cinderella [link]
- Sylvie Guillem and Charles Jude in Nureyev’s Cinderella [link]
- Dorothée Gilbert as Summer Fairy from Nureyev’s Cinderella [link]
- Larissa Ponomarenko as Cinderella, Roman Rykine as The Prince, with Melanie Atkins & Heather Myers as the stepsisters, in James Kudelka’s Cinderella [link]
- Yevgenia Obraztsova as Cinderella and Mikhail Lobukhin as The Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella [link]
- Diana Vishneva as Cinderella and Igor Kolb as The Prince in the finale of Ratmansky’s Cinderella [link]
- Trailer from Tulsa Ballet’s production of Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella [link]
- Dmitri Gudanov as The Prince and Yekaterina Krysanova as Cinderella in the ball scene of Yuri Possokhov’s Cinderella [link]
- Svetlana Zakharova as Cinderella & Sergei Filin as The Prince in Yuri Possokhov’s Cinderella [link]
In 1870, the Bolshoi Theatre had requested Tchaikovsky to write music for a ballet of Cinderella, but this never materialised. Many decades later, and following the success of his 1935 score for Romeo and Juliet, Sergei Prokofiev set about writing a score for Cinderella collaborating with Nikolai Volkov for the scenario.
Prokofiev began his work in 1940, but put it on hold during World War II to work on a more patriotic project, the opera War and Peace. In 1944, he resumed work on Cinderella after an Allied victory over Germany seemed imminent, and the work received a triumphant premiere on November 21, 1945 at the Bolshoi Theatre. Prokofiev and Volkov were guided by Charles Perrault‘s version of the story and influenced by Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores which so perfectly matched the structure of Petipa’s choreography. Prokofiev dedicated his composition to Tchaikovsky saying that he had structured Cinderella:
… as a classical ballet with variations, adagios, pas de deux, etc… I see Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us
What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path and finally the dream fulfilled.
Each act of the ballet has a different sonority. The first begins with “domestic life” scenes, with lean sounds and slowly progresses to magic as the fairy godmother comes to take Cinderella to the ball. A different atmosphere sets in for Act 2 which recalls and expands on the magic themes of act 1 to match the big ballroom numbers such as a lush waltz. The Prince and Cinderella dance a Pas de Deux representing love at first sight full of strings, light flutes and woodwind sounds. The mood shifts from romance to threat for the concluding number of the act, when Cinderella realizes she must leave just as the clock strikes midnight, powerful trombones and bass drum dominating the musical texture.
An essential Cinderella playlist for your iPod should include the below tracks. For the full tracks see see this Wikipedia article on Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Tracks 39-44, the Prince’s Gallops, correspond to the passages that were removed in Ashton’s version.
1. Introduction (Act 1)
3. Cinderella (Act 1)
12. Spring Fairy (Act 1)
13. Summer Fairy (Act 1)
14. Grasshoppers & Dragonflies (Act 1)
15. Autumn Fairy (Act 1)
16. Winter Fairy (Act 1)
31. Promenade (Act 2)
32. Cinderella’s Dance (Act 2)
33. Dance of the Prince (Act 2)
37. Waltz- Coda (Act 2)
38. Midnight (Act 2)
45. Cinderella’s Awakening (Act 3)
50. Amoroso (Act 3)
Choreography: Rotislav Zahkarov
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Pyotr Williams
Original Cast: Olga Lepeshinskaya as Cinderella
Premiere: 15 November 1945 at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Jean-Denis Malclès
Original Cast: Moira Shearer as Cinderella, Michael Somes as the Prince, Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton as the Stepsisters, Pamela May as the Fairy Godmother
Premiere: 23 December 1948 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Sources and Further Information
- Balanchine’s New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets by George Balanchine. Edited by Francis Mason and Illustrated by Marta Becket. Doubleday & Company, 1968. ASIN: B0006BVD5E
- Wikipedia entry for Ben Stevenson [link]
- A Brief History of the Fairy Tale by Jane Pritchard. English National Ballet’s Notes on Cinderella [link]
- Ballet Contexts: Cinderella by Jane Simpson. Sir Frederick Ashton’s Pages at Ballet.co [link]
- Wikipedia Entry for Ashton’s Cinderella [link]
- Ratmansky’s Cinderella by Catherine Pawlick. Ballet ~ Dance Magazine at CriticalDance.com, July 2006. [link]
- Suburban/Urban Dance. Review of Moscow Festival Ballet’s Cinderella by Paul Parish. Danceviewtimes, February 2004. [link]
- Alina Cojocaru: Stepping into a Fairy Tale by Zoë Anderson. The Independent, December 2003 [link]
- When Disney Gargoyles Met My Little Pony by Ismene Brown. The Telegraph, December 2003 [link]
- ABT Notes for Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella [link]
- Answers.com entry on Prokofiev’s Cinderella [link]
- The Royal Ballet’s Cinderella at Covent Garden by Sarah Crompton. The Telegraph, April 2010 [link]
- Programme Notes for The Royal Ballet’s Cinderella