American Ballet Theatre has been cycling through Cinderellas for three decades without landing a production it wanted to keep. I can understand why it would want one so badly: fairy and folk tales, with their supernatural elements, broadly drawn characters, and archetypal dramas, lend themselves to dance, and this tale has the virtue of Prokofiev’s imagistic, thoroughly danceable score. But that 1945 compositionmakes instantly clear why so few Cinderellas have panned out.
Far from the bold, simple strokes of fairy tale that leave the nuancing to the dances, the music arrives complicated, and it is demanding. The choreographer who ignores Prokofiev’s typically precise tonal directives does so at her peril. Love, for example, may be destiny but it does not announce itself. It murmurs at the edge of consciousness. It sinks back into melancholy memory. It engulfs the lovers in frightening vastness. It does not lead to anything as simple and static as “happily ever after.” As for the social world, it may jangle with discord but it is as definite as the terrain of feeling is intangible, landing like a hammer on whoever grows dreamy. And yet the fickle court and family are not simply evil. Nothing for Prokofiev is simple.
So it seems a choreographer would have to choose between fairy tale and music, or resign himself to awkward compromise. But somehow Sir Frederick Ashton eludes that devil’s bargain. The first act, at least, of his funny, sexy, witty, and wise Cinderella for the troupe that would eventually become the Royal Ballet grows imaginatively from its score and keeps its folk source in mind. The 1948 full-evening work was the first Prokofiev Cinderella to appear in the West, only a couple of years behind the original Russian productions, and it is the best I have seen. With its debut at the Met this week, American Ballet Theatre has found a Cinderella it can grow happy and old with.
You can tell the stepsisters belong to society—or want to, anyway—by how doggedly they move to the beat, whether they’re stitching the hem of a shawl or stepping on a gentleman’s toes. The ladies are a Humpty-Dumpty of maladapted attitudes and steps: a court jig here, a jitterbug there, and leaping like oxen everywhere. Prokofiev’s melody for the inseparable duo does not ascend; it squawks upward. It does not descend so much as lose its footing and bump to the bottom of the scale. Likewise for Ashton, these monsters are too inept—and too funny—to count as wicked.
As for the kingdom of love, the choreographer again accedes to Prokofiev, for whom that tingly realm is less interpersonal than metaphysical, emerging not between people but around them, in the air. Ashton best describes its miraculous nature not in the awestruck duets of Cinderella and the Prince but in the short bursts of the seasonal fairies and their godmother that pave the way to the ball: Spring’s bright jags, woozy Summer dripping sweat, Autumn pointing us back to Petipa with her imperious finger jabs, a Winter that is icy sharp, then meltingly soft, and first and last the Fairy Godmother Veronika Part, at once voluptuous and light.
In Cinderella, transformation leads to love, which effects further change. Transformation may be the very definition of dance, but each choreographer has his own self-reflexive metaphors for it. Balanchine brings out the mercurial nature of the art via speed and space-eating steps. Ashton concentrates on the body’s shape-shifting, often one part at a time.
The godmother and her retinue of fairies acquiesce to the torso’s sway; they spiral and twist while they step. Straight also harmonizes with curve in their hops on pointe, with the line of the ankle broken but the foot curved at the toes. Likewise, the fairies’ squires flex their knees high when they jump, then shoot them down like an arrow or fling them sideways like the tail of a falling star. Ashton is not interested in the ballast of the thigh but in the brilliance below the knee.
He recognizes the sexiness of something as simple as a pristinely straight leg suddenly hingeing. He makes the paradox of round muscle yielding to the angles of bones exciting—and would have appreciated the geometries of Cinderella Hee Seo’s exquisitely tapered legs in the grand pas de deux with a gallant James Whiteside as her prince.
The official love scenes are otherwise a bit dull. They lean too heavily on grand, Imperial style. But even then, Cinderella reminds us that Ashton, as much as his Russian counterpart in America, was not merely extending classicism but reinventing it for his time and place. The proportion of conservative to radical is exciting—and all his own.