The past few weeks have felt like Ashton fest at The Royal Ballet. With two of his most loved full-length ballets in repertoire, Cinderella and La Fille Mal Gardée (which just ended its run), we could immerse ourselves in his lovely choreography. Ashton’s tricky combo of fast footwork and supple upper body may be testing but looks so flattering when mastered by the dancer. It is not surprising that Miyako Yoshida chose Cinderella for her last performance at Covent Garden. Ashton’s choreography can really show off a ballerina at her technical and artistic best.
Cinderella was Ashton’s first full-length ballet. Choreographed in 1948, it was a double homage to Petipa and British Pantomime tradition (read more about it here). Even though Cinderella is not as often performed as other classics such as The Sleeping Beauty it has undergone several redesigns, most recently in 2003 when it was given a Disney-like makeover. More twee than dreamy, its looks have been much criticised by rather more eloquent voices. But instead of adding a critical view, what I want to address here is an occasional-ballet-going-friend’s question:
what differences can audiences perceive in two interpretations of the same ballet role, one given by a debuting dancer and another by an experienced ballerina?
Cinderella is a very challenging role. Instead of making his heroine the center of the action, as with the proverbial “ballet Princess”, Ashton put Cinderella on a collision path with with the stepsisters. As these character/comedy roles are given a lot of stage time (and certain interpretations can make them even more dominant), the lead ballerina needs to work hard at putting the spotlight back on Cinderella. She needs to make us register her emotional journey: sadness as she remembers past vs. present, kindness towards the beggar godmother, innocence, a sense of wonder and amazement as she steps down the Palace’s stairs en pointe and of course, love blossoming and triumph at the ball. Part of it will come from a direct response to the choreography but the other part will be dancer’s instinct; using the steps, modulating the movement to portray a timid, innocent girl changed by love.
We were lucky to catch Alina Cojocaru‘s Cinderella at the opening matinée. In the presence of the stepsisters, Cojocaru measures her “attack” so that the dancing is smaller. One can notice how jumps are softer and less traveled, arms kept closer to the body. Even her walking (when she is not bourrée-ing) is done in tiny steps. But in the ball scenes she becomes majestic. Soon she is circling the stage in razor-sharp piqués and châiné turns. As Prokofiev’s evocative score emphasizes love blossoming, Cojocaru lets herself be swept away by the music, rushing to her Prince’s arms, a smile illuminating her face. The pesky stepsisters and their shenanigans are never too much of a threat to a Cinderella like hers.
The following matinée I saw Yuhui Choe‘s debut. Yuhui is one of the Royal Ballet’s most promising young talents, one who’s been blessed with the gift of musicality. Like Cojocaru, Yuhui combines precise footwork and exquisite port de bras (ie. the carriage of the arms), but unlike her Principal dancer colleague, she does not yet fully adjust the scale of movement; making it bigger or smaller when necessary. One example is in Act II where Cinderella needs to let herself be “swept away” as carried by her Prince in the supported grand jeté, a moment which registered less in this performance.
But rather than compare Choe and Cojocaru I was interested in looking at the evolution of a role, which aspects of the choreography are fleshed out by each dancer. For a young dancer, developing and finding his/her own voice in a ballet is no different than, say, an author writing his first novel. Choe uses her rock solid technique to perform flawless variations. Her emphasis on the purity of classical line and graceful dancing make her a very natural Cinderella. You can see some beautiful pictures of her in this Ballet.co photo gallery.
The more experienced the dancer, the more of Cinderella’s emotional journey will the audience see. Seasoned ballerinas like Tamara Rojo, Cojocaru or Yoshida enter and illuminate the ballroom. They know how to maximise the emotional impact of a specific movement, even just by raising an arm. As Choe develops, her performances will bridge this artistic gap. Often years pass between a dancer’s debut and revisiting a role but, luckily for us, Choe is scheduled to have another go at Cinderella next Autumn.