BWW Reviews: American Ballet Theatre's CINDERELLA
When I come back in my next life, I'm going to be a scholar and pour over reviews from the past to better understand the present, like Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella."
When the Sadler's Wells (now the Royal Ballet) first performed "Cinderella" on its triumphant 1949 debut performance at the old Metropolitan Opera, John Martin, the eminent New York Times dance critic, was not engrossed. He wrote that it was difficult to be enthusiastic about it, but "if it were stripped of all its dead wood, both musical and choreographic, it would run considerably less than the two and a half hours it now undertakes to fill."
Mr. Martin, almost 65 years after those words were written, they still hold true today.
I am especially taken with his criticism of the Prokofiev music: "Nor is Prokofieff's (sic) contribution an unmitigated delight. There are beautiful things in it, the gavotte in the first act is very fine, and again and again there are typical ballet waltzes and the like that start conventionally and blossom into charming pieces of melodic and harmonic quality....And there are some pretty dreary stretches that sound merely mechanical."
I have been watching Ashton's "Cinderella" for over 35 years now, and every time I come away saying that there's always another evening, and perhaps I caught whatever company was performing it on a bad night. But I have to confess that I've stopped this. "Cinderella" is, to me, a crushing bore, and as much as I hate to say it, the words of John Martin bear me out.
First the music. Unlike "Romeo and Juliet, which hurls us headlong into the dirt, filth and passions of old Verona, "Cinderella" meanders for so long and listlessly, that any dramatic ballast it has to uphold sinks. Perhaps the subject did not hold much interest for Prokofiev, or that fairy tales just weren't his thing. I can't speak for Prokofiev. The ballet was composed between 1940 and 1944; halfway through its composition, Prokofiev stopped to write the opera "War and Peace." Cinderella premiered at the Bolshoi on November 21, 1945, choreography by Rotislav Zakharov and Galina Ulanova in the title role. It was a huge success, and when word reached England, Ashton decided to choreograph his own version, a combination of grand ballet and music hall pantomime.
As far as I'm concerned, the music is not appropriate for ballet treatment. Watching the performance last night , June 30, 2015, I began to wonder what would have happened if Ashton had offered John Lanchberry or Hershy Kay a commission to re-write the score into a 50 minute ballet score. It would have eliminated three intermissions, not to mention the possible inclusion of two other Ashton ballets on the program perhaps "Les Patineurs" and "A Month in the Country." That would have been an outstanding night at the ballet. (Actually, Kay might have been a better choice. His mother was a cousin of Sergei Eisenstein, the famed Soviet film director. Perhaps that's why Balanchine enjoyed working with him.)
Cinderella is, supposedly, a star part, but it doesn't really exist since the ballerina has little to do. She mopes around and dances with her broom, observes others and finally gets the chance to go to the ball. All fine and dandy, but it takes close to 90 minutes before any dramatic action is sparked with the appearance of the Prince. Before that we watch the shenanigans of the two step-sisters, performed with gusto by Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin, but after three minutes of their shtick, I wish they would wander off. (Edwin Denby found the original step-sisters, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann, hilarious. Were they any better?)
Hee Seo would make a wonderful Cinderella if the part offered her a chance, but time and again, she is defeated (not her fault), by the choreography. It's like watching someone grasp for invisible inspiration. Try as she might-and she does try mightily-there is little that Ashton, and the music, can offer.
Veronika Part, as the benevolent Fairy Godmother, has some nice touches, but barely stamps any personal character on her role, mainly because the role offers so little. Cory Sterarns as the Price makes a handsome presence, and while he is an excellent partner for Ms. Seo, they are undercut by the music that does not allow them to unveil any real passion as it does in the beautiful pas de deux Ashton created for "La Fille Mal Gardee." There we feel the pulse and throb of love taking wing. Prokofiev's stodginess-and I am a Prokofiev fan-doesn't allow this.
The only time the evening strikes a real gong is-strangely enough-- when the clock strikes twelve, provoking the strings and mallet percussion to thrust with energy and fervor. But it's over within three minutes.
The newly promoted principal Misty Copeland danced the Fairy Autumn divertissement, and, by her performance alone, gave evidence of her strength and boldness, the ability to hurl dramatic overtones across the footlights. Like everyone else, I look forward to seeing her in more principal roles in the future.
Although I don't ever see Ashton's "Cinderella" disappearing from the ballet boards any time in the future, I would still like to see someone streamline the music into a one act, as I mentioned before. Perhaps there's more to enjoy to " Cinderella" than what I've ever imagined. Until then, I'm still going to have to learn this music, or repeatedly damn the ballet. I'm not sure what course of action to take. Perhaps the fairy godmother will show me the way.
Photograph: Rosaie O'Connor