It’s a delight to find Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella among the productions on offer at American Ballet Theatre’s season, even if it’s been served to us as if we were at a ritzy buffet: the china is classy and the napkins cloth, but the beef stew and the boeuf bourguignon taste the same.
The show is handsome, the dancing is solid, and the story has all the beloved elements: a ball, a prince, a slipper, and a happy ending. But ABT has done three versions before this, by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ben Stevenson, and James Kudelka. The way the company dances the Ashton setting, you’d be hard-pressed to say what was different about it from any of the others.
Still, as Cinderella and her Prince, Hee Seo and James Whiteside made a lovely couple – more than the sum of their parts. Whiteside partnered Seo well and fielded the killer bursts of steps Ashton pitched at him, including a series of air turns and pirouettes Whiteside has also done in Theme and Variations.
Seo has everything going for her: a beautiful face, radiant smile, supple feet, and clean technique. Her best moment was the most famous – the astonishing entry down a flight of stairs to the ball. Her attendants preceded her, pouring down the steps like a waterfall. Then Seo stood poised at the top in her gown and train, and descended as if entranced – her body floating and still, only her feet articulating, stretching and reaching downwards. She was already a princess.
You can’t dance Ashton without using your torso – it’s got to really bend. Not just like classroom port de bras, but what seems an exaggerated sweep. During her Act 2 variation, Seo faced away from us and balanced on pointe in retiré. Then she looked up, arching back. It’s a quiet, fiendish moment that worked because she took the risk.
Seo is a tall, mellow dancer, but like most of ABT’s women, she doesn’t have much of a specific style. The times she looked most in tune with Ashton were also when she looked most energized, as in a clipped series of turns with her arms snapping down to a flat position. Yet much of the time she was beautifully, cleanly generic, doing bourrées that rippled the feet without expressing the fluttering emotions that were behind the step. A ballerina, but not an Ashton ballerina.
She didn’t have as much difficulty as Veronika Part, who looked as if she were fighting her Vaganova training to dance the Fairy Godmother. Performances like these are the reason Ashton’s choreography has the reputation of being eccentric: It looks eccentric if you can’t do it. When Part used épaulement, there was no twist in her torso, just an indication of one. The quick arm changes seemed to make no sense to her, so she waved her hands in a vague guess at what they were, and got by on smiles.
Supporting her, two of the fairies came closer to the style. Yuriko Kajiya’s variation as The Fairy Autumn was as hard as a final exam, but she aimed for detail: quick switches of direction while pointing the way with her finger. As The Fairy Spring, Skylar Brandt went past classroom steps towards Ashton steps, leaping forward while twisting her shoulders or bending towards her extended leg as she turned.
Beyond the dancing, Ashton’s production is beloved for its sweetness and humor. He gave scene-stealing roles to the stepsisters, originally played by himself and Robert Helpmann in the broad tradition of British pantomime theater.
Roman Zhurbin pushed Helpmann’s bossy sister in an even sharper direction; in his black curled wig, he looked a strange combination of Lucy van Pelt and Cher. Zhurbin’s sister was predatory yet grand as she bossed her sibling or set her sights on a suitor. Craig Salstein, though attempting to steal every scene he was in, kept his sister more in line with Ashton’s original characterization: sweetly overwhelmed and ready to fall in love with every man she saw.
Ashton’s style is more fragile than Balanchine’s; there are fewer opportunities to dance it and fewer people working to preserve it. And ABT has long been a buffet of stars – that’s part of its identity. But what if the company actually dug into Ashton or – saints preserve us – their own home genius Antony Tudor far enough to show us the difference between dancing Cinderella and Symphony in C?