When Frederick Ashton's " Cinderella" premiered at Covent Garden in December 1948, London resembled a lovely woman with ash on her face. It was a grim time. Remnants of the war lingered in the city: rubble from the blitzkrieg, treasury coffers riddled with debt, homelessness, food rationing. A splendid fairy-tale ballet -- the first by a British choreographer -- promised an escape. In its January 1949 review of "Cinderella," Time magazine noted that the English audience was "eager to be enchanted."
FOR THE RECORD:
Joffrey Ballet: An article last Sunday about the Joffrey Ballet's production of "Cinderella" gave the age of artistic director Ashley Wheater as 48. Wheater is 50. —
Sixty-one years later, Ashton's radiant masterpiece arrives in a Los Angeles plagued by the New Depression. This week the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet brings this quintessentially British ballet to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
When the Joffrey last performed in L.A. in 2007, ballet's feistiest bounce-back troupe was embarking on a new era. Robert Joffrey's surviving co-founder, Gerald Arpino, though aging, was enthralled to be in L.A. and enjoying a permanent new Chicago home for his company. Before Arpino died in 2008 at age 85, Ashley Wheater, ballet master of the San Francisco Ballet, was appointed to the post of artistic director -- with Arpino's blessing.
"Cinderella" is a key addition to the Joffrey repertoire known for its large repository of Ashton's works.
Unlike other full-length works in the classical canon -- "Swan Lake," "Giselle," "Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty," all rooted in the 19th century -- "Cinderella" belongs unambiguously to the 20th. Prokofiev's dark, spare, even sour score, written in 1944, is the main reason. But the 42-year-old Ashton, a master of dance lyricism who had been choreographing since 1926 but still had iconic works ahead of him, concocted ballet invention that is fresh, angular and modern.
The great dance critic Edwin Denby praised "Cinderella" for its "English sweetness of temper." Today, however, a melancholy tone conflicts with the ballet's joyous luster.
"There is a bittersweetness to Ashton's 'Cinderella,' " admits Wheater, 50, a Scottish-born former dancer who grew up in the Royal Ballet and received direct coaching from Ashton. "There is an underlying sense of sadness. You have this breathtakingly beautiful pas de deux, and yet, gosh, the clock is ticking. How long is it going to last?"
"Cinderella" is a ballet about time. Four fairies represent the seasons of the year, an eternal symbol of the life cycle. The women's arabesques sometimes have stick-straight arms, like arrows, with pointing fingers that signal a one-way ticket into the future.
In his Act 2 pas de deux -- a cascade of sublime body sculpture -- Ashton offers visual puns reminiscent of a clock's rotating hands. Held off the ground by her Prince, the ballerina scissors her beam-straight legs, swapping her feet between the 4 and 8 o'clock positions. And in the penultimate lift, Cinderella, upended by the Prince, indicates 6 o'clock with her head while her feet thrust up toward dreaded midnight.
The ballet showcases Ashton's trademark serene approach, but dancing it is a challenge. Says Wheater: "We think dancers are much better today than in 1948, but people are still struggling with the technique. When you look at the men's and women's variations in 'Cinderella,' I mean, they're hard," Wheater says. "Look at the choreography for the 12 Star Fairies. It's very intricate, fast and all on pointe."
Ultimately the ballerina carries the evening -- at least whenever two wicked stepsisters, who are always played by men, are not providing comic relief.
Cinderella is a great role for a ballerina, according to Wendy Ellis Somes, former Royal Ballet dancer and widow of Michael Somes, the stalwart danseur noble who was the production's original Prince: "Her entrance [at the ball] is exquisite, coming down the stairs on pointe with that magical cloak trailing. When you dance it, the house is very still and you can hear a pin drop." Somes danced the title role in the '80s. Now she's flown in from London to coach Joffrey dancers in the detail she learned from her late husband and from Ashton.
The role actually was created for two dancers, explains Somes, primarily Ashton's muse, Margot Fonteyn, and redheaded beauty Moira Shearer who in 1948 also graced movie screens in "The Red Shoes." When Fonteyn tore a ligament, Shearer danced opening night, but Fonteyn, a simpatico actress, came to dominate the role. Says Somes: "Ashton had already choreographed the kitchen scenes on Margot before she got injured; they're soft and gentle, very Margot. Then he made the second act on Moira; it's spiky and strong. It actually works out well for the ballet in a funny kind of way."