Alexandra

#4 - Do the Ugly Sisters overwhelm the story?

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(4) Some critics have argued that the antics of the Ugly Sisters overwhelm the story of Cinderella and the prince and the classical dancing. Do you agree?

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That's very interesting. I've thought so much about the step sisters in this production, I think mainly because Ashton and Helpmann gave the roles such a distinctive flavor. I have seen many Cinderellas; none of the step sister characterizations compare to Ashton's and Helpmann's. It's not that they're men; I think it's because they're older men and make the step sisters look and act like older women, giving them a gentle, befuddled air. Their "gentleness" compliments Ashton's lush choreography. The So. Calif. step sisters were more on the zany side, none the less Ashton's choreography was not to be denied....nothing can diminish it. Having just seen the video I couldn't help comparing the So. Calif. step sisters to Ashton and Helpmann and I missed the above mention "gentleness" they gave to the ballet. Dowell and Sleep dance the step sisters in London; I'd be interested in seeing their interpretation.

I find Ashton's Cinderella the best of the Cinderellas; I simply loved it, on the video and live.

Giannina

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Ashton was clearly influenced by the British pantomime tradition when he created this work. Cinderella has always been perhaps the most popular of pantomimes and I imagine he was unable to envisage the story without the pantomime dames. Whether or not the sisters upset the balance of the work really depends on the calibre of the dancers in the roles of Cinderella and her prince. Yes, they can be overwhelmed if an inferior cast is performing but with dancers of the stature of Fonteyn (the first and best of the Cinderella’s I saw) it just doesn't happen.

That Ashton and Helpmann were never bettered in their roles was more to do with their personal rapport than any lack of ability in their successors, though over the years I did get the feeling that Helpmann became too overbearing in his role and finished up displaying no subtlety at all.

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I agree with Giannina. Also, for all thier silliness, Ashton and Helpmann give the stepsisters a humanity, that would be so easy to miss by performers today who might just try to go for the easy laughs. Yes, the stepsisters's are funny, but Ashton and Helpmann also make us feel sorry for them in a way.

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On this video, I don't think the stepsisters overwhelm the story, and I think they give the character balance to the classicism that Ashton was after. I think he borrowed from the pantomime tradition in creating the first British full-length ballet -- not so much that he was influenced by them that he coudln'lt create something else, but that he wanted something that was familiar to the audience, and also identifiably British. (The 1940s and 1950s were a time of nationalism everywhere in European and American ballet. You had to give the audience recognizable material, like "Rodeo" or "Square Dance" so they could "identify" with this alien art form.)

Even with Ashton and Helpmann (whom I loved!) I would have to say that it bothers me, in theory, that the stepsisters are 40 years older than Cinderella. I would imagine Ashton dispensed with the Wicked Stepmother because that would have been too much, but the poor father has to be the weakest man on the ballet stage. That said, I forget this when Ashton and Helpmann begin to move! I've only seen the latest cast on video too (it was broadcast on Britisih TV) and I think Dowell and Sleep are too much. These roles need to be directed by someone stern, who can say "stop!"

I also agree with Mashinka that a lot depends on the ballerina. A truly great, authoritative ballerina is never upstaged. If you have a ballerina without Ballerina Authority, no matter how beautiful her dancing, she can be overshadowed by other performers.

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According to David Vaughn, Ashton hated the English pantomimes and never went to one. But he seems to have picked up on them by osmosis, because I agree that the Sisters are in that tradition.

I agree that the Sisters don't overwhelm the rest of the ballet in this performance, and it doesn't bother me that they're so much older than Cinderella -- actually, I hadn't noticed it till Alexandra mentioned it. :) If we're to take the characters that literally, we might ask why they're men. :) I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for a couple of hours. I think you have to do that to some extent in any narrative ballet -- or opera or musical. People don't just naturally start to dance, or burst into song.

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Did Ashton mean for the step sisters to be older women? I had the feeling that the stepsisters took on that guise only when Ashton and Helpmann danced the roles and gave them their own particular twist. Having forgotten what I read in Vaughn's book I don't remember if Ashton made the step sister roles on Helpmann and himself. If so then perhaps they're old; if not then it's a particular characterization.

Giannina

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The step sisters were actually planned to be played by women, but an injury to one, Moyra Fraser, prompted the change. Fraser did take the part later, but by that point it just didn't seem to fit.

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I think Ashton's stepsisters gently dither, futz and bicker; they're soft blurred pastels next to the bright, clear strokes of Cinderella.

I've seen Stevenson's version so often, I tend to dread Cinderella...the slap-stick stepsisters in his version completely overwhelm. For me, the result is Cinderella is too much of a non-entity, an afterthought, even with a great dancer. I prefer the subtleties and the details in the Ashton version, particularly (as others noted) in Cinderella's pointe work, which help delineate her character more sharply than that of the stepsisters. The result is a ballet that revolves more around Cinderella, than the stepsisters.

(This participating business is making me very nervous.... :wacko: ...:blushing: )

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Dont you agree that this is something that the British understand better than most.

Subtelty and humor in the style of say Cinderella or even Coppellia seems to something they understand and excel at. :blushing:

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werlkj, welcome to Ballet Alert, and the Cinderella discussion! Don't be nervous about participating, all are welcome here, regardless of our experience in watching ballet. The more varied our participants, the more interesting the discussion! B)

Am I understanding you correctly that Stevenson also uses men as the stepsisters? It's interesting to see how other choreographers approach this. In the only other Cinderella I've seen, the recording of the Konstantin Sergeyev version, for the Kirov (not the Bolshoi, as the DVD and video incorrectly state), they are danced by women, on pointe, and have quite a lot of dancing to do. It does takes away from Cinderellas's specialness.

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Am I understanding you correctly that Stevenson also uses men as the stepsisters?

Yep, no doubt inspired by Ashton's version.

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In spite of all my praise for Ashton and Helpmann's understated step sister interpretation, my favorite step sister is Guillaume Graffin in ABT's version of Cinderella which, I understand, is Ben Stevensen's. He's a tough, sexy, hysterically funny, good lookin' dame. I guess I just like the character; you could put him/her anywhere.

Giannina

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I think it's in the music that they have to be caricatures -- Prokofieff's scenario calls for them to be grotesques, and calls them "furious" and "Petulant," or something like that --

At least, that’s what I gathered from the program notes for the Moscow Festival Ballet, which did a revision of the first Bolshoi version on their tour through here last year -- with very funny pointe work for the stepsisters, and a hilarious drag role for the MOTHER (whom Ashton left out of the story).... THe ballet was conceived for Ulanova, and she was a very real dballerina, and Cinderella was conceived as a real person surrounded by horrible vulgarity....

I reviewed it for Danceviewtimes -- here’s the link if anybody wants to check it out

http://www.danceviewtimes.com/dvw/reviews/...er/suburban.htm

it was kind of wonderful, but not as lovely as Ashton's -- though there was a beautiful quiet pas e deux where he offered her the crown, and they danced with it using it for support (like hte tambourine in Esmeralda)....

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I recall the Kirov/Sergeyev version from 1964, and the sisters were danced by Gabriela Komleva and...Natalia Makarova??!? (Sizova danced Cindy) They weren't particularly ugly, except in demeanor, which could be called undifferentiated nasty. The Ashton version with two pantomime dames works much better.

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I think the Ugly Sisters overwhelm the story in the 1969 video, because Helpmann is such a poisonous presence. I compared Helpmann and Ashton's performances to the earlier made-for-TV version with Fonteyn and Somes, and had forgotten that Macmillan was cast against Ashton, and between Macmillan's characterization and the changes made for the video, the balance is much better. That version did make a mess of the seasons variations, but the version is gold for preserving the Winter Fairy variation danced by Svetlana Beriosova.

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