Cinderella – A Brief History of the Ballet

Written by Robyn Justum:

Whether accustomed to Charles Perrault’s original fairytale, the Brothers Grimm cautionary tale (no fairy godmothers there!), Disney’s 1950 cartoon, or the 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musical starring Brandy and Whitney Houston, most are familiar with the story of Cinderella. In the spirit of pumpkin season and bringing a little extra magic to October, we are happy to introduce Cinderella as this month’s theme for Cardio Ballet!

The ballet version of Cinderella has been reimagined countless times over the years. The first documented versions date back to 1813 followed by a London production in 1822. The one commonality that most productions have is the music of Sergei Prokofiev, composed in the early 1940’s to complement Nikolai Volkov’s libretto (storyline). The premiere of Prokofiev’s composition was in 1945 at the Bolshoi Theatre with choreography by Rostislav Zakharov.

Prokofiev began his score in 1941 but did not complete until 1944 due to World War II and his work on the opera, War and Peace. He writes of Cinderella, “… I see Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us…What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path and finally the dream fulfilled.”

There were earlier versions of the ballet and earlier scores created based on the plot, including an 1893 premiere at the Marinsky Theatre featuring choreography by Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov, supervised by Marius Petipa (Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker), with music by Baron Boris Fitinhoff-Schell. The lead role of Cinderella was danced by Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani, and this version marks the first performance of a ballet in Russia to include the execution of 32 consecutive fouettées.

A few years after Prokofiev’s premiere, Frederick Ashton choreographed his own version to the score for the Sadlers’ Wells Ballet, adding a comedic layer that is often associated with the roles of the step-sisters. Ashton premiered his ballet in 1948 at the Royal Opera House, with Ashton himself dancing the role of one of the two step-sisters. Ashton’s Cinderella has been performed by many companies, including Joffrey Ballet, Boston Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

Since the debut of Zakharov’s choreography, there have been many interpretations beyond that of Ashton’s. In 1979, Ben Stevenson introduced his version as a pas de deux between Cinderella and her prince. In this premiere, the prince was danced by Kevin Mckenzie, now artistic director of ABT. Stevenson later went on to premiere the full-length production with Houston Ballet and later, in 1996, with ABT. The ABT premiere included Julie Kent as Cinderella and Maxim Belotserkovsky as her prince. ABT premiered Ashton’s version in 2014, featuring James Whiteside as the prince, Veronika Part as the fairy godmother, and Hee Seo as Cinderella.

In 2012, Christopher Wheeldon premiered his own version of the fairytale in Amsterdam as a co-production between the San Francisco Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet. It made its U.S. premiere the following year in San Francisco. Wheeldon is an internationally recognized English choreographer, formerly of New York City Ballet, where he was a soloist and later the company’s first-ever Artist-in-Residence and first Resident Choreographer. He is also known for his Tony-award winning choreography of An American in Paris: The Musical. Wheeldon’s Cinderella is described by Jennie Scholick as follows:

“This ballet leaves behind the fairy godmothers and talking mice in favor of a delightfully human story full of fabulous visual effects. With fantastic sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, magical projections by Daniel Brodie, and breathtaking puppetry designed by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist to put a new “twist” on an old tale, Wheeldon updates this timeless tale for modern audiences of every age…While the ballet has some similarities to the animated classic, Wheeldon chose elements from both the Charles Perrault fairy-tale (the one the movie pulls from) and the Brothers Grimm, which has a few darker tones.”

As noted above, beyond the music, a common trait you’ll find in different productions is the emphasis on visual elements, including impressive sets, lavish costumes, and lots of special effects. In company program bills, the ballet’s production value is often described as “ornate,” “magical,” “innovative,” etc.

Other notable interpretations include Rudolf Nureyev’s for the Paris Opera Ballet (1986), Kent Stowell’s for Pacific Northwest Ballet (1994), Septime Webre’s for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (2003), and Edwaard Liang’s for Ballet Met (2015).

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