Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella premiered two years after his triumphant 1946 reworking of Nicholas Sergeyev’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, and in classical decorum and narrative structure it is much influenced by Beauty. But where the 1946 Beauty was a leap of faith, a bold declaration that British ballet had come of age, 1948‘s Cinderella bespoke a transformation. It seemed to say, “and we, the homespun sister, are now arrayed in a classical style all our own.”
Ashton’s Cinderella is all about dancing. Its subject, of course, is a dance — the ball at the palace —and by extension the hopes and dreams that attach to the preparations for this ball (dance lessons, new shoes, proper dresses). The tale is told, however, in movement modes pulled from English traditions: court pomp, Christmas pantomimes, the London stage (revues, musical theater, and that special English knack for comedy en travesti). Add to this a classical deportment of crisp upper-body inflection and a reverence for pointe work that can only be called Ashtonian — pointes like sewing-sampler needle work, pricks of heightened intimacy and focused poetry–and you have a ballet that imposes its Englishness on any who dance it.
American Ballet Theatre has been dancing Ashton since 1946, when it performed Les Patineurs, yet it always seems to be starting from scratch with his style. Where the company swoops into the ballets of Kenneth MacMillan like fabric flying off the bolt, the tailored metrics and strange enunciations of Ashton act as a check and balance, taking time to get right or close to right. There is abandon in Ashton, yes, and curvaceous phrasing, but it’s not bodice-ripping and never monumental. Instead it’s that English love of the phrase coolly deployed and wittily or lyrically contained–articulation just so, for the civilized joy of it. ABT sometimes triumphs in Ashton. Symphonic Variations has been stunningly danced, especially when led by Stella Abrera, so perfectly pitched. And the company looks game and happy in Sylvia, principal men rising to its steppy, swirly challenges and the women reveling in the heroine’s Amazonian swagger and attack. Cinderella is a more delicate matter, and the company’s June 9 debut of the ballet was careful, attentive, a work in progress.
The role of Cinderella was danced by Hee Seo, a young dancer getting a big push from management. She is a quiet performer, cultivating herself, it seems, in the school of Julie Kent: pretty line of smooth texture, with nothing extreme and not a great deal of energy in the enchainment. Seo has beautifully arched feet and they beautifully pointed up Ashton’s adoration of the pointe, here displayed by the heroine and the fairy spirits who buoy Cinderella’s own yearning spirit. Seo’s use of her feet was the best thing about her performance, showing both the emphatic isolation that comes with a deliberate rise to pointe and the way such isolation pulls and holds one’s eye to the dancer. Her momentous entrance to the ball, descending the stairs one pointe at a time, embodied Ashton’s metaphor of transcendence. To complete the character of Cinderella, Seo needs to find dynamics beyond niceness — a suggestion of growth or change or blossoming.
Veronika Part, who danced The Fairy Godmother, will never be Ashtonian. Her Russian roots and her instrument — long, pliable everything —preclude it. And yet her work in Ashton is often splendid–in Sylvia she made the small role of Terpsichore a work of couture, unforgettably piquant. Here, the lush lambency and ballon she brought to her Act One solo, coupled with the soundless coloratura of her pointe work, suggested benevolence in a bubble, a magical suspension of time.
As the stepsisters, Roman Zhurbin in the Robert Helpmann role and Craig Salstein in Ashton’s have the characters within reach. Their comic timing is sharp and often hilarious, but with Zhurbin sometimes a little too butch and Salstein a bit hyper, they’re just now a little more Dickens than Ashton.
The most wonderful moment of the evening was the dance of the 12 Stars. Using an extremely narrow range of spiky steps and gestures, set with mathematically precise and charming counterpoint, Ashton creates a tiara glitteringly come to life — not just the princess tiara that Cinderella is destined to wear, but a little crown for the company that would become, in 1956, the Royal Ballet.