At the start of American Ballet Theatre’s dazzling, new production of Cinderella, which entered the repertory on Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House, the heroine sits on a stool by the kitchen hearth. Staring wistfully into the fire, she seems a person of no consequence. Her step-sisters, embroidering a scarf, take center stage.
Tellingly, however, Cinderella’s knees are drawn up so only her toes touch the floor. Though she has not begun to dance, she is already on pointe and her satin shoes glimmer promisingly in the firelight.
Leave it to Sir Frederick Ashton, Britain’s greatest classical choreographer, to provide this simple clue to what will follow. Cinderella is a story in which footwear always figures prominently, but never more than when the fairy-tale is translated into dance. Cinderella’s pointe shoes give the lie to the ashen rags she is obliged to wear. Cutting through her disguise, they reveal the innate nobility that her nasty stepsisters are at pains to suppress. When ballerina Hee Seo, in the title role, places her dead mother’s portrait on the high mantelpiece she must rise on pointe, too, a small figure stretched to its utmost and balancing on the stool. Clearly there is no goal this young woman cannot reach.
In these revealing moments, Ashton tells us about himself as well. Other productions of Cinderella may be more conceptually daring or closer to the intentions of the ballet’s framers, composer Serge Prokofiev and his librettist, Nikolai Volkov. Yet no production of Cinderella could be more classical, worshipfully exalting the ballerina’s line and the particular beauty of her feet. This choreographer is fond of small, quick steps: finicky piqués, scurrying runs on pointe, quick tendus front and back and steps that paw the ground. The ballerina’s feet always trick us into paying attention to them, capturing our gaze and moving rapidly to give an impression of lightness in terre-à-terre combinations. Yet Ashton is comfortable with grand gestures, too.
Before the ballet ends, with the reunited lovers cuddling as they walk into a shower of fairy-dust, this choreographer gives us Cinderella’s apotheosis as a ballerina. The Prince supports her in a grand développé à la seconde, switching sides to test her balance before he leads her around in a promenade and deep penché arabesque that display the purity of her line. This arabesque, reverently observed by the onstage audience of fairies, is the culmination of the whole evening. It doesn’t get more classical than that.
Worth noting, too, is the way Ashton uses classroom steps expressively. The Prince’s brisk cabrioles telegraph his ardor as he pursues Cinderella in the ballroom, and the many jabbing développés in the Jester’s variation reflect that character’s role as a gadfly. Ashton uses tempi and phrasing as well as a variety of steps to characterize his seasonal sprites, from the light bounding of The Fairy Spring to the giddy whorls of The Fairy Autumn. The Fairy Summer wafts voluptuously and stretches, while The Fairy Winter seems to carve a hole in the ice with her circling foot.
ABT has more than enough wonderful dancers to fill this production’s many roles. Seo makes a convincing ingénue as Cinderella, her smile lighting up the dark interior of Act I in response to a sudden, gleeful fantasy. Resolute and upright, James Whiteside brings noble bearing and clean technique to the role of her Prince. Neither of these young dancers, however, has yet developed the plasticity in the upper body that is an Ashton trademark. For all his classicism, this choreographer (a student of Nijinska) was addicted to movement. Veronika Part, as the Fairy Godmother, realizes the choreographer’s vision most perfectly with her suppleness, her extraordinary lightness on pointe and her languid deportment. Part also understands Ashton’s wit, and she seemed to enjoy one of his most outrageous devices — tossing a handful of glitter into the air to mark her own entrance.
The humor in this ballet isn’t always so subtle. If Cinderella is a ballerina, her stepsisters are a pair of old vaudevillians. The broadest gags involve wardrobe malfunctions, and a toupee that lands on the floor where it is mistaken for vermin. In between loopy pratfalls, however, Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin offer impersonations of the stepsisters as detailed as psychological case studies. Worth the price of admission is the cunning sidelong look that Zhurbin casts when he realizes the glass slipper won’t slide onto his foot and instantly opts for deceit.
American Ballet Theatre has tried on other versions of Cinderella over the years, but so far Ashton’s is the only one that fits.