Boston Ballet has spent the past 20 years looking for a “Cinderella” with the right glass slipper. It auditioned Ben Stevenson’s version in 1993 and Michael Corder’s in 1997. After that came James Kudelka’s “Cinderella” in 2005 and 2008. Now the company is going back to the first Western version set to Sergei Prokofiev’s classic score, Frederick Ashton’s, from 1948. Sadler’s Wells Ballet — the future Royal Ballet — brought Ashton’s “Cinderella” to New York in 1949, but this is its Boston premiere.
Prokofiev’s music was in fact just four years old when Ashton took it up. “Cinderella” had been staged in Moscow in 1945 and St. Petersburg in 1946, but Wendy Somes, a former Royal Ballet principal who is overseeing the current Boston Ballet production, doesn’t believe Ashton could have seen either version. At the time, he was looking to do an evening-length work, and he was attracted to Prokofiev’s two ballets. “He did wonder whether to do ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Somes recalls. “But I have a feeling he did ‘Cinderella’ because he knew there was a part for himself in it, as one of the Stepsisters!”
America got to know Ashton’s “Cinderella” through a shortened TV version that aired on NBC in 1957, with Margot Fonteyn as Cinderella, Michael Somes (later to become Wendy Somes’s husband) as the Prince, and Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan as the Stepsisters. Wendy Somes didn’t watch that broadcast, but when she did see Ashton’s “Cinderella” at Covent Garden, at age 12, she says, “I thought it was absolutely exquisite. I’d seen ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake,’ but for me ‘Cinderella’ was more magical than either of those ballets.”
Soon she was performing rather than watching: first as a page to the Winter Fairy, when she was at school, then as one of the 12 Stars who accompany Cinderella to the ball. “Then,” Somes says, “I very quickly was put into the Spring variation. I danced Spring and I danced Autumn, and then of course Cinderella. In fact, Cinderella was one of my very last retirement performances.”
Now she travels around the world staging Ashton’s “Cinderella.”
What makes it special? “The freshness of it,” she says. “It could have been choreographed yesterday. And he is one of the most musical choreographers I have ever come across. If you look at the steps that go with the music, it’s meticulous. It really is.” She defines the Ashton style as “musicality, port de bras, and the purity of the line. He hated broken wrists.”
Principal dancer Misa Kuranaga, who’s scheduled to portray Cinderella on opening night, opposite Jeffrey Cirio's Prince, is a big fan of the Ashton style. “Simplicity” is how she defines it. “That’s why it’s so beautiful. There’s not too much going on. It's very simple, very humble. And I like that.”
Kuranaga, who danced Lise when Boston Ballet presented Ashton’s “La fille mal gardée” in 2006, says she’s always wanted to do Ashton’s “Cinderella.” “I think it's one of the most classical versions. Kudelka’s version is more neoclassical, with some twisted humor, and it was based on 1920s style, the costumes and everything. And I was thinking that if we did ‘Cinderella’ again, I definitely wanted to do Ashton, because the costumes and the sets and the scenery are very classical. It’s more like a fairy tale.”
One fairy-tale moment in the ballet is Cinderella’s arrival at the ball. “She enters on pointe in fifth position,” Kuranaga explains, “just staying still. And then the Prince comes and offers his hand, and I grab it, and we walk down the stairs, and I’m on pointe. So it looks spectacular.”
It also looks extremely difficult. Somes says that this entrance “is not as hard as it looks.” Cinderella does have the Prince’s hand to steady her. But she has to gaze out at the ballroom, not down at the steps. “She’s almost in shock,” says Kuranaga, “because she’s never seen anything this pretty in her life, and she can’t look down, she’s in the moment.”
Kuranaga is in her own moment right now. She was a Fairy in Kudelka’s version, but this is her first time as Cinderella. “It’s my dream come true,” she says.
Somes recollects a curiosity about the creation of the role. “Margot Fonteyn was choreographed in the kitchen scenes of the first act, which is very lyrical, and very soft. But then she had an injury, and Moira Shearer had to be used to choreograph the second act. Completely the opposite, very spiky, very sharp. Totally different from the lyrical feeling that Margot had. And when Margot came back, actually she found that quite difficult. Because all dancers are slightly different, and Fred tended to choreograph on what he’d got in front of him. But actually, it works. The softness and the sorrow of Cinderella in the kitchen scenes, and then she comes to life, sparkling. So you get that lovely combination of the two.”
Ashton’s “Cinderella” will have a Jester cavorting at the ball; Cinderella’s Father appears, but not her Stepmother. And though many versions of the ballet, including those by Corder and Kudelka, cast ladies as the Stepsisters, in Ashton’s “Cinderella” these roles are danced by men in dresses and heels. According to Somes, the Stepsisters are “the hardest roles to cast.” She says she looks for “character. It’s not an easy role. Also, humor is very delicate.”
Are the Stepsisters tempted to overact? “That’s very much a danger,” she says. “They become rather comfortable in the role and start adding this and that. Less is more. And you’ve got to get two dancers who are compatible. I’ve swapped them around a bit for this production; you have to see how they go together.”
Ashton omitted parts of Prokofiev’s score — the “Grasshoppers and Dragonflies” dance in Act One, and the Prince’s travels and galops in act three — but he borrowed from the composer’s piano music to create a solo for the Fairy Godmother. The appearance, during the ball, of the March from “The Love for Three Oranges” is not Ashton’s interpolation but Prokofiev’s own little joke. Ashton acknowledged it by having the Prince bring out oranges for his guests. “It’s like the Prince offers Cinderella the most wonderful present in the land,” Somes says, “because oranges in Russia were non-existent.”
Somes has a final thought, one occasioned by something Ashton mentioned to her a few years before his death, in 1988. “He said, ‘You know, it would be lovely to bring the coach back on in Act Two, like I did originally, but there’s never any room.’ And I said, ‘But Freddie, it’s lovely when she comes down the stairs on pointe.’ And he said, ‘But can't we do both?’
“And of course it was never possible. But when Covent Garden reopened and the stage became bigger, I got Toer van Schayk from Amsterdam to make a set where we brought the carriage on at the top, and she gets out of the carriage and walks down on pointe. So I hope, Fred, you’re pleased with that. And maybe if we do a new production in America, we can do that here, too. And he’ll look down and say, ‘Ah, that's what I wanted.’”
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.