October 24, 2014

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New Shoes to Fill

By David Lyman
02 Jun 2014

Scene from Cinderella performed by The Joffrey Ballet.
photo by Herbert Migdoll

Looking back, it seems inevitable that American Ballet Theatre would one day stage Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella. With 11 Ashton works in the repertory – Cinderella makes 12 – his choreography has never been far from the ABT stage.

Ashton is an old company friend, a witty, cultured and sometimes profound presence whose ballets fit ABT’s character like a glove.

Never mind that this most English of choreographers was born in Ecuador and raised in Peru. He understood English ballet – and what it revealed about the English character – in a way that few others ever have. And, most importantly, his ballets had an uncanny sense of humanity and an enviable ability to connect with the audience.

So it just seemed like a matter of time before ABT would finally have his full-length and much-loved Cinderella in the repertory. The company has had other Cinderellas, from Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1983 version, co-choreographed with Peter Anastos, to Ben Stevenson’s splashy 1996 production to James Kudelka’s 2006 visually fascinating production to now, Ashton’s 65 year old classic.

Ashton’s production was created as a holiday spectacular for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London in December, 1948. It was his first full-length work. Inspired by a score that was just four years old – Prokofiev completed it in 1944 – Ashton dashed off what has come to be regarded as one of his masterpieces.

“When you watch it, it’s hard to imagine that it was done in 1948,” says Wendy Ellis Somes, production director and supervisor, who staged the ballet for ABT. Ellis Somes, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, was married to the late Michael Somes, also a principal with the Royal and an Ashton confidante who became a staple in his ballets. “That choreography is still so fresh that everyone who sees it is surprised that it is more than 65 years old,” says Ellis Somes. “It’s really quite amazing.”

Remarkably, with the Ashton version, ABT Principal Dancer Julie Kent will have danced the title role in three of the company’s four “Cinderellas.” Even more remarkable is that in all three, she has been partnered by the same man, ABT Principal Marcelo Gomes.

Kent finds that maturity and motherhood have changed her understanding of the role as much as the productions themselves.

“I find myself seeing it through the eyes of my children now,” says Kent, the mother of two. She’s especially aware of how it may be viewed by her four-year-old daughter, Josephine. “This is a romance, of course. But I don’t view it so much as a man who comes to save Cinderella. I think of Cinderella as finally being seen and recognized for who she is.”

It’s unlikely that Ashton was as concerned with the philosophical implications of the ballet. He was, first and foremost, a showman. Like so many dancers of his era – he was born in 1904 – he didn’t have the luxury of performing only in “pure” ballets. When he was starting out, he danced in clubs and in musical revues – almost anything that would pay the rent.

He worked with Ida Rubenstein’s company in Paris, where Rubenstein, a former Ballets Russes dancer with more panache than technique, gave him a vivid lesson in the importance of theatricality. Soon after that, he crossed paths with Bronislava Nijinska. For Ashton, it changed everything. The idea of choreography would never be the same.

From the outset, Ashton’s choreography had been influenced by a wide and remarkable range of choreographic styles in an equally wide variety of entertainment forms. He had a vivid sense of theater, of comedy and of the traditional English variety stage, all of which manifesed itself in Cinderella.

“The reason I didn’t choose the Ashton Cinderella before is that it was so associated with The Royal Ballet,” says McKenzie. “I thought ‘it will never be ours.’ But over the past few years, we’ve done a lot of Ashton and the company has developed a real affinity for the physicality, musicality, humor and humanity that Ashton brought to all of his characters.”

So rather than search around to find another Cinderella that was artistically worthy and relatively unknown to audiences, McKenzie decided there was nothing wrong with adding a ballet that so brilliantly plays to his company’s strengths.

“Finally, I had to ask myself ‘Why are you avoiding Ashton? We do MacMillan’s ‘Romeo’ and we claim that as our standard. It was time for us to do Ashton’s Cinderella and to make it our own. It’s a masterpiece. And now it’s our masterpiece.”

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David Lyman is the author of "Cincinnati Ballet Celebrates 50: 1963-2013" and writes about dance and theater for The Cincinnati Enquirer.




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