writers on dancing


Lincoln Center Festival
Ashton Celebration


The Royal Ballet
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, N.Y.
July 16, 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published July 14, 2004

As the final offering of the Ashton Festival, The Royal Ballet brought its current production of the 1948 “Cinderella”—Ashton’s first evening-length ballet and, as the Royal’s new director, Monica Mason, reminds in a program note, the first full-length British ballet—for three performances at the Met, with three different casts. The first of them featured the Royal’s charismatic young ballerina Alina Cojocaru, quickening every classical phrase with spirited authority, in the title role (and winning a personal ovation that rivaled the roars last month at the State Theater for the Georgian dancers); her frequent partner—the persuasively aristocratic, Danish-trained virtuoso Johan Kobborg—as the Prince; Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep as the Stepsisters (with Dowell, who seemed at one point to perform the entire ballet “Raymonda” in a variation lasting only several minutes, taking on the pugnacious Stepsister originated by Robert Helpmann and Sleep, who slyly needled his way into every one of Dowell’s laughs, the “shy” Stepsister originated—inimitably, alas for Sleep—by Ashton); Isabel McMeekan, decorously embroidering her intricate choreography, as the Fairy Godmother; Joshua Tuifua as the authoritatively turned-out Dancing Master; and José Martin as the Jester, performing bravura wonders with multiple pirouettes that slowed down to a stilled pose then speeded up again (a feat familiar from other male dancers at American Ballet Theatre who, like Martin, trained at the Victor Ullate Ballet School in Madrid). In the Divertissement for the Four Seasons, which many Ashton fans cite as some of the finest classical choreography Ashton ever devised, The Fairy Spring, Christina Elida Salerno, about whom I know nothing other than her performance here, achieved a feat of balance in which she had to cuttingly reorient one arabesque position into another without coming off point—and then, in case we missed it the first time, she cut the step again, without taking a molecule of sharpness off the edge of the blade. In terms of ensemble dancing, the nightmare passage at the ball, where Cinderella is blocked by the courtiers, then the Prince, then the Jester, sustained a feeling of rising anxiety that threatened to spill into terror: just right. And in terms of characterization, the moment when the two Stepsisters bend the knee and the brow in apology to Cinderella was understated yet quite piercing.

The production as a whole is credited to Wendy Ellis Somes, who was bequeathed the rights to the ballet by her late husband, Michael Somes, with the staging and rehearsal direction credited to Christopher Carr. There were five principal coaches (Somes, Alexander Agadzhanov, Lesley Collier, Donald MacLeary, and Christopher Saunders), and the Prokofiev score, played by the orchestra of the New York City Opera, was conducted by the remarkable, Moscow Conservatory-trained Boris Gruzin, familiar to New York audiences for his passionate conducting of Tchaikovsky with the Kirov Ballet. Richard Ramsey, a last-minute substitution in the cameo part of A Jeweller, made his entrance with a little rotating kick in air that was a gem in itself.

There were things to wonder about, such as a crash during one of the scenic changes and the absence from the program of the names of the 12 danseuses who embodied the hours of the clock. (They were assigned a fair amount of whirling on point and other passages of real choreography.) Also missing from the program are the names of the children who flanked the Fairy of each season: the little shepherd and shepherdess of Spring, the chimney sweeps of Winter, et al. Toer van Schayk’s Act I interior of Cinderella’s house offered all the visual interest of a Dickensian debtor’s prison and yet was also so vast in its proportions that the dancers had to fight to keep one’s focus, especially at comic moments. And I seem to remember an alternate ending to the apotheosis for Cinderella and the Prince in which he lifted her overhead and slowly circled while—this is surely a false memory?—carrying her up the stairs, rather than the two of them simply ascending the stairs together and turning to face us.

Still, the moment when Cinderella entered the ball, a train about 12 feet long flowing from her hyperbolic Elizabethan collar, and, steadying herself by giving one hand to the Prince and the other to an attendant, descended a steep flight of stairs on full point without looking down, provided one of those jawdropping images that only classical ballet can produce, and it was sufficient for a lifetime. In one scene of the van Schayk set, it was lovely to glimpse something of the look of Oliver Messel’s much-missed scenic designs for the Royal’s “Sleeping Beauty.” (Another observer detected a possible influence in the set designs of work by Rex Whistler, and a photograph of Whistler’s baroque scenic design for “The Wise Virgins,” an Ashton ballet of 1940, in David Vaughan’s “Frederick Ashton and His Ballets” bears out the suggestion.) In the Divertissement, the graded invention of spatial depth accomplished by scenic transformation was beautiful. The Watteau-like costumes by Christine Haworth moved very well, and Cinderella’s hearthside dress, a silken confection in Giselle blue, wrapped the heroine in her own everpresent, heavenly cloud.

Photos, both by Dee Conway:
First, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg as Cinderella and her Prince.
Second:  Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep, as the Ugly Stepsisters.

Originally published:
July 17, 2004
Volume 2, Ashton Section
Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff


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