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Ashton's "Cinderella"October 4-15, 2006 in the Auditorium Theatre


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#1 Jack Reed

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Posted 14 October 2006 - 08:24 PM

It's Prokofiev's early work I enjoy, things like the "Classical" Symphony and the Violin
Concerto No. 1; the later products of his highly developed craftsmanship sound synthetic to me, and so I think it's greatly to Frederick Ashton's credit that he could fit so much attractive choreography to the stream of infernal sounds he had chosen as he did in Cinderella, performances of which I've been looking at the past few days: The 1957 Royal Ballet video, with Margo Fonteyn, Michael Somes, and Ashton himself as the shy stepsister, and this (Saturday October 14) afternoon's performance in the Auditorium Theatre by the Joffrey Ballet, with Suzanne Lopez, Temur Suluashvili, David Gombert (as the shy sister), and Brian McSween (as the bold one). While fitted to the music, the choreography nevertheless, or maybe because of that, seems to me more than a little arbitrary and short-spanned, rather than looking like it develops out of what just went before, as Balanchine's does, so that this Cinderella was not my cup of tea, but the Joffrey's production of it was a heck of a good show all the same, and I had a good time with it.

As it happened, Gombert and McSween were so feminine, in the sense that their movement had the quick, large clarity and lightness I associate with women's dancing, compared to Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan in the video, not to mention the perfectly matched timing many of the gags require, so that the gags carried to the back of the large house to the delight of the audience, that I preferred McSween to Macmillan, who doesn't look fully present to me, even though there were some gross novelties today I thought out of keeping with Ashton's decorous mildness, the worst of which was McSween's groping of Gombert's - uh - bustle, at one point. But beyond vividness, there's characterization, and in this Ashton himself is hard to beat.

As are Fonteyn and Somes in their roles. In the forum here devoted to discussion of the 1969 video with Sibley and Dowell (and Ashton and Helpmann), which I haven't seen, the question is raised whether the sisters dominate the ballet, over the pair of lovers, to the ballet's detriment. In the video, they finally do not, for me, although at first we do begin to get quite enough of them, thank you; this effectively sets us up for contrast with Fonteyn's strong dance characterisation of Cinderella: She is so lovely and light and pure and fine, she convinces us she is the deserving one, and we want her happiness to happen. But the Joffrey's pair wasn't a match for the Royal's - sorry if it seems unfair even to make the comparison - although Lopez was technically clean most of the time, Fonteyn usually looked like she could do with something more challenging - and it had some disadvantage in distance, versus the camera's close range (too often too close), for this observer in row U. (I picked the performance I could get the best seat for, unaware Gary Chryst and Christian Holder were not dancing the sisters at every performance.)

That said, I thought Maia Wilkins as "The Fairy Summer" was quite lovely, beautifully nuanced and shaded, my favorite of the afternoon. (Is this the plum among the Seasons roles, or did she just make it look that way?) Willy Shives was effective in the small role of the Father, and John Gluckman as the Jester could turn nearly as well to the left as to the right, and seemed to prefer to, and had fine, easy elevation in jumps, just right for the role and another audience favorite.

Part of the Joffrey's advantage was that, of course, I was seeing a production in full color high-resolution (a.k.a. real life) instead of a fuzzy black-and-white video; and another was that it was - had to be - realized on stage, while the director of the Producer's Showcase video could move his camera and edit, and this freedom was enough rope that he nearly hung himself. On stage for example, Cinderella's frantic midnight exit became a true nightmare scene - have you ever had that one where you must get there and something holds you back, people just keep getting in your way, and then it happens again exactly the same way? Floor patterns! No cuts! We see the whole crowd she and then the Prince must penetrate. Much more effective than on television, with its closeups. And then her costume change - she ducks down behind the corps for a moment and then, in her rags again, runs back up the steps she entered down - or somebody does, maybe there's a substitution; on television, there's a cut to another shot. Too easy! Nothing to wonder at. No suspension of disbelief.

Oh. That entrance, by the way, Lopez had made on pointe, down four steps to a landing, then three more steps to the stage; I'd heard of this entrance, and it's pretty impressive and commanding, right off the bat, if I may use the expression. Neither Fonteyn, who has two steps, nor Sibley, in her video, I'm told, enter this way, FWIW.

For the record, David Walker is credited with the set and costume designs, which were very fine; direction and supervision are credited to Wendy Ellis Somes, with "additional staging" by Christopher Carr; lighting is credited to Scott Kepley "with Wendy Ellis Somes", so that I don't know who's responsible for one of the more perverse ideas I can remember experiencing in the theatre: Twice a lavender spotlight shines in the eyes of the main-floor audience on the left side of the house; how are we to see the action on stage? So I didn't see the beggar woman's transformation into the Fairy Godmother, for instance, having been transformed into a blind man myself for a moment. Fortunately, these occurrences were brief, not at the most important times, and I hope they were unintentional. But except for that, and some dim light along the front of the stage, this production rolls happily along (in spite of Prokofiev), right to the drizzle of golden glitter on the happy couple as they walk to the back at the end - that says "Happily ever after" as clearly as anything could.

#2 rg

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Posted 15 October 2006 - 07:42 AM

re: the entrance, down stairs on pointes: indeed, video recording-wise, fonteyn has the tv settings to negotiate and, thus fewer, less elaborate stairs.
sibley i'm told was recovering from injury or somesuch and thus the 'en pointes' entrance is left out of that film with dowell.
the best i've seen recorded on vid comes from the 1979 collier/dowell telecast - sent to the u.s. for christmas, w/ jim dale hosting from the covent garden lobby. collier has very long pointes indeed and makes her way precisely and sharply and impressively down the first set of stairs, across the landing and then down the remaining steps with notable aplomb, giving full musical and theatrical dimension to ashton's choreographic image.
i forget how well (or not) the entrance was filmed w/ the more recent cojocaru/kobborg royal telecast in the UK. i seem to recall it was done well enough, but seemed not quite so riveting as collier's moment.
antony tudor recalled in some remarks once when he got an award - capezio i think - that he had a vivid childhood memory of seeing pavlova enter the scene of her production of FAIRY DOLL by making her way down stairs on pointe.

#3 ami1436

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Posted 15 October 2006 - 07:49 AM

i forget how well (or not) the entrance was filmed w/ the more recent cojocaru/kobborg royal telecast in the UK. i seem to recall it was done well enough, but seemed not quite so riveting as collier's moment.


This seems a pretty accurate assessment to me. You can very clearly see the entrance.... but imo not as captivating, enchanting, WOW-worthy as Collier's...

#4 Treefrog

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Posted 15 October 2006 - 07:54 PM

As always, I like Jack's analysis.

I think it's greatly to Frederick Ashton's credit that he could fit so much attractive choreography to the stream of infernal sounds he had chosen as he did in Cinderella . . . While fitted to the music, the choreography nevertheless, or maybe because of that, seems to me more than a little arbitrary and short-spanned, rather than looking like it develops out of what just went before, as Balanchine's does, so that this Cinderella was not my cup of tea, but the Joffrey's production of it was a heck of a good show all the same


I kept feeling bad for all the moms who had brought their small daughters to see this fairy tale ballet -- only to be faced with farsical dissonance and minor keys, and not even a lavish ball to rescue the mood!

I saw the matinee performance last Sunday, with Victoria Jaiani/Mauro Villanueva/Calvin Kitten, and Chryst and Holder as the stepsisters. Jaiani was fine as Cinderella. Villanueva just didn't do it for me as a prince. However fine a dancer he might be, his body and bearing just don't work as a danseur noble (I think that's the term I want?); he's too boyishly slim. And this production badly needs a prince who just adores Cinderella; when Villanueva failed to present Jaiani adequately during the curtain call --taking his own bow at pretty much the same time as hers -- I realized that he just didn't project that undying attentiveness that, say, Willy Shives always shows for Maia Wilkins. Kitten was as playful and elastic as ever.

Jack, I'm pretty sure that's a substitute Cinderella in rags running up the stairs and out of the ball. The hiding-behind-the-corps thing didn't go so well last Sunday, and I saw Jaiani exit stage left. And, I'm not sure the woman in rags actually transforms into the Fairy Godmother. I think the FG just shows up a little later.

I thought Maia Wilkins as "The Fairy Summer" was quite lovely, beautifully nuanced and shaded, my favorite of the afternoon. (Is this the plum among the Seasons roles, or did she just make it look that way?)


I don't recall the fairies well enough, but it would be fair to surmise that Wilkins just made it look that way. Nuance is her specialty; it is always the description that springs to my mind for her dancing, regardless of the role.

As for those lavender lights -- alas, I suspect they were no mistake, as I saw them sweep the orchestra ahead of us too. (We have slightly cheaper seats, toward the back of the main floor.) I couldn't for the life of me figure out what effect they were trying to evoke.

#5 motwins8391

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Posted 16 October 2006 - 12:21 PM

I kept feeling bad for all the moms who had brought their small daughters to see this fairy tale ballet -- only to be faced with farsical dissonance and minor keys, and not even a lavish ball to rescue the mood!



I, on the other hand, think Prokofiev's score, with all its dissonance and minor tones, is far preferable for children than the bland stuff that Disney, et al, have to offer. The notion that fairy tale music must be "pretty" sells our kids short. What a great opportunity to broaden young minds by presenting all that music has to offer. Prokofiev was a master story-teller. (My kids listened to and enjoyed this score as pre-schoolers!).

Villanueva just didn't do it for me as a prince. However fine a dancer he might be, his body and bearing just don't work as a danseur noble (I think that's the term I want?); he's too boyishly slim. And this production badly needs a prince who just adores Cinderella; when Villanueva failed to present Jaiani adequately during the curtain call --taking his own bow at pretty much the same time as hers -- I realized that he just didn't project that undying attentiveness that, say, Willy Shives always shows for Maia Wilkins.


Again, I respectfully disagree. I saw Willly Shives, Michael Levine and Mauro Villanueva as the Prince. And while I have ADORED Willy Shives for years, Villanueva won hands down for me. My teenage, dancing daughter and her friends were completely taken. And for this 40+ woman, his youth and strength were so refreshing and exciting after seeing the other two. His leaps made Shives and Levine look downright grounded. (Yes, Shives is the ultimate partner and his pairing with Wilkins is perfection -- utter joy for me -- but he looked more like a "king" than a "prince" during his solos. My daughter and I noticed that he "cheated" his turns by turning in his leading foot.). I loved Villanueva's confidence and spark.

To the best of my knowledge, this was Villanueva's first go in a "starring" role and as a partner of Jaiani (whose usual partner was the recently departed Samuel Pergande), so I imagine we may be seeing what I hope is the beginning of a great partnership. (I felt that Jaiani was tentative in her ballroom solos compared to Wilkins and Julianne Kepley, but she is relatively young as well). I look forward to a Jaiani/Villanueva Romeo & Juliet. I should also note that we see a very slim Anthony Dowell in the 1960s Royal Ballet recording of Cinderella.

#6 Treefrog

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Posted 16 October 2006 - 03:59 PM

I'm so excited to have a new and knowledgeable voice in this forum! I hope we'll hear a lot more from you.

Clearly, our disagreements are over matters of personal taste. I'm happy to agree that what's your cup of tea may not be mine, and vice versa. Should make for some interesting conversations!

For the record, I agree completely that music need not be bland and pretty to appeal to kids. Nor should kids be relegated to the bland and pretty stuff. However, I didn't find this score very accessible, and in fact, it set my teeth on edge. (This was my first time hearing it.) I hope you'll forgive me for imagining that others would not be captivated either.

#7 motwins8391

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Posted 16 October 2006 - 05:24 PM

I'm so excited to have a new and knowledgeable voice in this forum! I hope we'll hear a lot more from you.

Thanks for the nice welcome. I've been enjoying your posts and input, Treefrog, since I discovered this forum a couple of years ago. I wish we had more commentary on the Chicago ballet scene.

I didn't find this score very accessible, and in fact, it set my teeth on edge. (This was my first time hearing it.) I hope you'll forgive me for imagining that others would not be captivated either.


I'm sure you're in good company. It's a devilishly difficult, fast tempo score, and while I thought the Sinfonietta did a fine job with it overall, there were several not-quite-making-it high notes from the horns, missed and otherwise messed notes, and not-completely-in tune passages from the strings that I found pretty grating!

I remember leaving "Romeo & Juliet" one night a few years ago and hearing a couple of ladies remark that they hated the music! So, yes it's very much a matter of personal preference.

#8 Helene

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Posted 16 October 2006 - 08:49 PM

Prokofiev wrote the Cinderella score over the course of five years in which soon after he had a heart attack in 1941, he was among the cultural prizes of the Soviet Union who were uprooted to live in the Caucasus for the duration of WWII, and he was separated from his wife, Lina, a Spaniard who returned to the Soviet Union with him, and children. (A post-war decree by Stalin made it illegal for a Soviet Citizen to be married to a foreign national, and, as a result, their marriage was annuled retroactively, leaving Lina stranded. Soon after Lina was arrested for espionage in 1948, he married his War and Peace librettist, Mira Mendelssohn.)

The time period in which he wrote Cinderella was devastatingly brutal for the nation and for Prokofiev personally, which explains why the score is particularly gnarly, given its subject.

#9 Treefrog

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Posted 17 October 2006 - 05:26 AM

Thank you, Helene, for that bit of context. It leads me to wonder why he chose this particular story to set to music. Was he deliberately being sarcastic/sardonic, making a commentary? As I was watching, the word that kept popping into my mind was "farce", in the sense of being a mockery. That would certainly fit with Prokofiev's circumstances.

I remember leaving "Romeo & Juliet" one night a few years ago and hearing a couple of ladies remark that they hated the music!


:yahoo: There's just no accounting for taste . . . :devil:

#10 Helene

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Posted 17 October 2006 - 05:44 AM

The score for Cinderella was a commission from the Kirov Ballet, which explains the subject One thing I didn't mention was the pressure on Prokofiev and all known Soviet composers to write in a style that Stalin liked and which became part of the artistic ideology. There was pressure on Prokofiev to go backwards in his writing style. Historically he's portrayed as an outspoken, cranky guy in real life. I'm not sure if sarcasm was as much of his way of coping as it seemed to be with Shostakovich, who was portrayed by Rostropovich (in a talk I heard last spring), tried to say nothing and take no stands outside of his music.

#11 Paul Parish

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Posted 17 October 2006 - 09:05 AM

Re Prokofiev's music -- I hope that Yuri Possokhov's new version for the Bolshoi, which had a success in Moscow and was shown in London to reviews that were quite favorable, will someday be shown where we can all see it. Possokhov came up in the Bolshoi, but lives now in San Francsico, as you all know, and when I was interviewing him about this project last year he told that he'd been stunned to discover that Cinderella's music enshrines Prokofiev's feelings about his wife, who'd in fact been sent to the prisons by Stalin -- crushing irony, the difference between the private feelings and the public requirements. Prokofiev has to write happy music on this happy subject (which was at the end of WW2 supposed to show the emergence of radiant Russia and make everybody feel liberated) and the heavy, disturbing music for the Cinderella waltz embodies thiswrenching, agonizing love for his wife who has been taken from him and imprisoned by the same powers athat are making him write this advertisement for soviet liberation.

I'm paraphrsing him, not very well, but it was very evident that he was trying to fathom the depths of that and bring it out in his new porduction - -I'd give almost anything to see it.

In any case, it explains the feeling we all have, that the music is trying to tell us something other than what it's "supposed to."

#12 Helene

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Posted 17 October 2006 - 10:31 AM

It's odd that Possokhov gives that chronology for Lina Prokofiev's inprisonment. They were separated during the period of 1941-5 when S. Prokofiev intermittently wrote the music for the ballet, but she wasn't imprisoned until 1948. She was, however, left to fend on her own in Moscow during the war years, raising their two children.

#13 Paul Parish

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Posted 17 October 2006 - 04:58 PM

I'd better listen to that tape again. Perhaps she was persecuted in some other way that Prokofiev was unable to alter. Yuri certainly said from reading Prokofiev's private papers that Prokofiev was very anxious for his wife's safety and that the ballet was suffused with his feelings about her.

#14 drb

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Posted 17 October 2006 - 05:59 PM

Prokofiev had already left Lina to live with Mira in 1941. From 1948, Lina spent eight years in a labor camp. But it was ultimately a Cinderella story of sorts. She had her children, and lived till 1989, well into her 90's. Some of the story, and references, appear in this Times review:

http://query.nytimes...agewanted=print

#15 Helene

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Posted 17 October 2006 - 09:44 PM

Prokofiev had already left Lina to live with Mira in 1941.

The interpretation depends on the source. While Prokofiev's relationship with his wife was troubled, in 1941 both Prokofiev and Mira Mendelson, who was a writer, were sent to the Caucasus, like many other cultural figures. They had already been close collaborators.

There is at least one factual error in the Times review; Prokofiev was most certainly divorced from Lina Prokofiev, thanks to Stalinist law passed in the late 40's. That is why he was able to marry Mira Mendelson legally.

Perhaps the reviewer shouldn't have dismissed the author's proposal that Prokofiev felt guilty about his wife, Lina. Unless he had still had feelings for her, it's hard to figure out why else the score of Cinderella was so sour.

Perhaps she was persecuted in some other way that Prokofiev was unable to alter. Yuri certainly said from reading Prokofiev's private papers that Prokofiev was very anxious for his wife's safety and that the ballet was suffused with his feelings about her.

She was left alone to fend for herself, a foreign national, and her children in wartime Moscow. He had every reason to be anxious about his family's safety. Ironically, having survived the war without her husband, she was put into a labor camp a few years after it.


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