Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella’s 75

After 10 years out of the Royal Ballet‘s programming, the revival of Cinderella is now showing in London, with the cast led by Marianela Nuñes. No classic story without drama, and Cinderella has some.

The children’s tale of Cinderella, best known by the French version of Charles Perrault‘s was always obvious for the dance, including fairies, balls, and happy endings, but the first official and complete version of the story was in Vienna, in 1813, only reaching the London in the year that Giacomo Rossini‘s opera, La Cenerentola, was a success in Paris, in 1822. Obviously, Marius Petipa had his version in 1893, with a score by Boris Fitinhof-Schell, but, in general, Cinderella did not exceed the perfection of Sleeping Beauty.

Frederick Ashton was in the cast of the English production of 1906, as the Prince, and since 1939 he wanted to create a complete ballet (3 years and a large production), the World War delayed the plans and it was essential because in that period the final score of the work was written by Sergei Prokofiev, commissioned by the Bolshoi Ballet, which premiered its version in 1945. The Kirov Ballet did its own production the following year, with choreography by Konstantin Sergeyev and Olga Lepeshinskaya as Cinderella, but it was the replacement Galina Ulanova who became a living legend in the Soviet Union dancing the lead role.

In peacetime, Frederick Ashton pursued his personal ambition and understood that it was a time when in early 1946, in a speech at the Soviet Theater Exhibition, Ninette de Valois said that she could not wait to see “the first complete English classical ballet”. He knew that he would be the author of this work.

Though the project nearly became Ashton’s other masterpiece, Sylvia (which didn’t debut until 1952), it was Cinderella that won the lead. At that point, the choreographer had already heard and approved Prokofiev’s musical version, but, in his version, he “edited” and drastically reduced the original work, eliminating the complete scene of the prince in search of Cinderella, which in Russia was the opportunity traditional to include national dances. As he found it unnecessary and without engaging music, he removed it from his ballet, as well as other small variations.

For Ashton, creating Cinderella was his greatest opportunity to honor his idol, Petipa, and in his view, the story is essentially about dreams. Her heroine is initially seen without her pointe shoes, as if it were still a dream to be a ballerina, so much so that the legendary solo with the broom underscores this. His impressive entrance into the ball, already at the top, magically descending the stairs and advancing in a pas de bourrée at the end to the front of the stage is always a moment of great applause. When she comes back to reality, it is the sneaker that convinces her that what she experienced was true. There is more!

For 75 years, one of the great attractions of the montage, maintained over the decades, was to transform the roles of Cinderella’s sisters into pantomime and interpreted by men dressed as women. Today there would be many cultural and social problems for the ‘joke’, but bringing the two as comic relief only highlights the delicacy of the Cinderella cat. None other than Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann stole the spotlight as the “ugly sisters”. And in the choreography, Ashton interprets how his Ugly Sister dreamed of being Odile at Siegfried’s ball, from Swan Lake, or the Sugar Plum Fairy, from The Nutcracker, without succeeding. The other ugly and bossy Sister (Helpmann) repeats a step known as the “fish dip”, which is a familiar step from the pas de deux of the wedding in Sleeping Beauty.

Now he needed to find his Cinderella and this story also gave rise to some dispute legends.

In 1948, Scotswoman Moira Shearer was one of the principal dancers at the Royal Ballet (at the time, Sadler’s Wells), but in the company, there was no bigger star than Margot Fonteyn. However, outside of dancing, there was another reality. Moira was bigger than Margot as she starred in the big Hollywood production of that year, The Red Shoes (the best film about dance ever made), an Oscar-nominated film, and a huge box office success. Her elegance and impeccable technique made Moira, aged 22, a reference for what it was like to be a ballerina, as she immortalized in the cinema as Victoria Page. Starring in the Royal’s biggest production yet, Moira Shearer stepped out of Margot’s shadow and made it big as Cinderella.

In her autobiography, Margot Fonteyn retells the story as if she had been Ashton’s muse for the production, not Moira. According to the dancer, when she saw that she would have to dance the three-act production, she considered that it would be exhausting to do all the performances for the season, but, to her surprise, when the cast was announced for the first time, she saw that although she was going to dance the premiere, Moira Shearer would alternate with her in the lead role. Margot would have commented to Ashton that she found the company’s decision strange, but he simply replied that she herself had said that it would be exhausting to dance alone. Here comes the “legend”: coincidentally Margot got injured two weeks before Cinderella premiered. That’s how Moira Shearer made her debut and went on to “dancing every performance”, as Fonteyn would have refused to do. Dancing the first night of a production, mid-dance is a sign of prestige and stardom. The role came to be referred to as “Moira’s” and was obviously a huge success. Even in 1984, Frederick Ashton denied Margot, admitting that the ballet was conceived even for Moira. “You can see [Moira] Shearer’s style in the ballroom variation: fragile,” he stated.

While Margot’s honesty about feeling threatened is both elegant and incredible, Moira Shearer soon retired from the stage and decided to work solely as an actress. Still, even with other “Cinderellas”, such as Violetta Elvin and Nadia Nerina, after Margot finally debuted in the role, no one managed to surpass her success in the ballet and the film that was recorded with her in the role proves it.

Frederick Ashton‘s Cinderella has been reworked in several other ballet companies around the world and at the Royal itself, including the 1987 season, which featured one of Princess Diana‘s most iconic looks: her long dress embroidered with stars and stars and signed by Murray Arbeid. For the 2023 version, which celebrates 75 years of ballet, the company brings a new atmosphere to the ethereal world of the classic, with scenography signed by Tom Pye and costumes by Alexandra Byrne. Pure magic, a beautiful tribute.


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