The story of how a lost slipper rescued a simple girl and turned her into a princess dates back to ancient Greece. Although numerous countries have their own version of the fairy tale, it's mostly the French version from Charles Perrault written in 1697 : which introduced the fairy godmother and turned the slipper into glass : that all the operas, ballets and latter movies, are based on.
And so is the staging of Cinderella by Houston Ballet's Artistic Director Stanton Welch.
Well, sort of.
The Cinderella that Houston Ballet will revive in February 2012, the one Welch originally choreographed for The Australian Ballet in 1997, is dark. And Cinderella does not end up with the prince.
But it may actually be a much better ballet for children, particularly young girls.
A Real Prince
"It's a very feminist ballet," Welch says. "What do you want to tell your daughter today? That someday someone will come along and save you, or that someday you'll have a wonderful life of your own?"
In Welch's version Cinderella is more pixie-haired tomboy than sweet maiden; more an awkward teenager dealing with body image and growing into an adult than the perfect but put-upon stepdaughter. By the time she attends the royal ball she realizes the foppish prince, who wants her only as a pretty accessory, is not the prince of her dreams. It is the prince's quiet but steadfast secretary, Dandini, with whom she falls in love.
"Children today know princes aren't the Ken dolls they were led to believe in the 1950's," Welch says. "I really do think she gets her prince in the end. Princes aren't made from money. Dandini really is a prince, he just doesn't have the title."
In this age of celebrity worship and reality shows, the message to young girls that true love can be found all around you, and it doesn't have to be someone rich and famous, is refreshing. Welch says the ballet is really aimed at girls 10 to 16, but there's also something in it for adults. Like the animated movies Rango and Toy Story, this Cinderella entertains both young and old.
There are lions and minotaurs, peacocks, statues that come to life, magic and slapstick. And some very impressive choreography; including two beautiful pas de deux for Cinderella and Dandini with soaring lifts and longing looks.
No Fairy Godmothers
But there are no fairy godmothers in this ballet. It is Cinderella's dead mother and her ghostly friends who weave the ballgown of spider webs for her to wear to the ball.
"There's always darkness in fairy tales," says Welch, who admits to being inspired by some of the dark threads in the Sergei Prokofiev score. "If anything, I feel I didn't go dark enough. In one version the stepsisters chop off their toes to try and fit into the glass slipper. I didn't use that. But the ghouls and ghosts here are cool: scary, 'kid' cool."
Sort of a Tim Burton ballet, if you will. In fact, the graveyard scene where Cinderella and her dead mother weave her gown is creepy cool, like Burton's Corpse Bride. The set, designed by the late Kristian Fredrickson, morphs from a Southern swamp graveyard to a more simplistic look by the end of the ballet.
"It's really one of my favorite Fredrickson productions," Welch says. "I wanted to set the ballet in a Georgia swamp, which makes no sense as there are no princes there. But I was reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil at the time so the ballet has a very Southern Gothic feel to it. But as Cinderella becomes more independent the ballet becomes less scenic."
And, yes the stepsisters are performed by men, as in British "panto" productions and many American ones. But while they are semi-comic, they also have some very challenging choreography en pointe. And the character arc for Cinderella is one that should interest parents while entertaining the children.
So how did Welch decide to change the ending of one of the most beloved fairy tales?
Certainly the feminist movement had something to do with it, the desire to produce a fairy tale ballet that would inspire young girls to look for love in truth and not in titles. But it also had a little something to do with family.
Welch saw his brother, Damien Welch, dance the role of Dandini in a traditional version of Cinderella in Australia and began to wonder why that character didn't wind up with the girl instead of the prince. So he created his own version and cast his brother, now retired from dancing, as a Dandini who did get the girl in the end. Cinderella chooses him over royalty, allowing the best man to win.
"My brother will actually be here," Welch says, "helping to mount the production."
Welch also plans a few tweaks to the production since Houston Ballet audiences saw it in 2008, but the story line will remain the same. Both children and adults will be familiar with the tale as it unfolds: the poor, mistreated little waif gets to attend the royal ball after all, thanks to some mystic influence. She dances, loses a slipper and then the prince comes calling to find the foot that fits the slipper. Only in this version, Cinderella declines the prince's royal offer. Instead, she lives happily ever after with her true love, Dandini, a prince of a man, but not a royal poser.
"I think it still resonates today," Welch says. "Even in America. We don't have royalty here but we have celebrities, people who are famous for just being famous, that Americans treat like royalty. And this ballet is about ignoring that hype and going for what's real."
As an introduction to ballet, or as a follow-up to those both young and old whose first taste of dance is The Nutcracker, Houston Ballet's Cinderella is the perfect evening of entertainment.
Houston Ballet's Cinderella runs February 23 through March 4, 2012 at Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater.