The Stroke of Midnight

Classic Arts Features   The Stroke of Midnight
Robert Sandla looks at the long history of the Cinderella story and at James Kudelka's version, coming to American Ballet Theatre starting June 2.

For a girl who spends most of her time huddled in an ash heap, Cinderella sure gets around. The earliest documented version of her story dates from around 900 A.D. in Tang Dynasty China, although researchers have tracked down ur-Cinderellas as far back as ancient Egypt, where a sandal of gold was the telltale footwear. She's been popping up ever since, in widely disparate cultures virtually around the globe, with the same essentials consistently in place: unjustly oppressed young woman; close association with the hearth; sudden recognition of inner worth despite outer impoverished state; one-of-a-kind shoe; instant ascent to wealth or even royalty. Folklorists count over a thousand variations of the tale, with the best-known based on Charles Perrault's 1697 retelling. Writing for the French court, Perrault eliminated the disturbing elements of the story but invented one inspired detail: the slipper made of glass. Other versions were less blithe. Not for nothing were those famous Brothers named Grimm: in their recounting, the stepsisters hack off parts of their feet to squeeze into the shoe. And what catalogue of Cinderella's many manifestations would be complete without mention of the gender-bending 1950 film Cinderfella, in which Jerry Lewis essayed the title role opposite Anna Maria Alberghetti as Princess Charming? Poor Cinderella. It took Walt Disney to launch our heroine into the pop-culture pantheon. His charming, often saccharine animated musical film, with its clean-cut prince and "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo," is still wildly popular half a century after it first appeared.

Now Cinderella is coming to American Ballet Theatre, in a fresh staging by choreographer James Kudelka set to Sergei Prokofiev's score. Ballet Theatre will give Kudelka's Cinderella its New York premiere this spring at the Metropolitan Opera House. Eleven performances of Cinderella are scheduled; hopes are high. Given the combination of a story everyone knows, Prokofiev's sophisticated music, and Kudelka's fluent movement idiom and narrative skills, it looks like the timeless tale is ready to work its magic once more.

Kudelka created this version of Cinderella for the National Ballet of Canada in 2004, when he was that company's artistic director, and Boston Ballet gave the work its U.S. premiere last fall. Critics praised Kudelka's ingenuity and invention, ready wit, and the new depth of feeling he discovered in a familiar story. Just as Prokofiev's score balances lush harmonies and a sardonic edge, Kudelka's Cinderella appeals both to children and adults. A former dancer with both National Ballet of Canada and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Kudelka has an intimate understanding of ballet technique, and can shift from tender pas de deux to showy pyrotechnics with ease. He has choreographed more than 70 ballets for a huge range of companies, and made three works for Ballet Theatre: Sin and Tonic (2002), Cruel World (1994), and States of Grace (1995).

Although Kudelka had used waltzes from Prokofiev's Cinderella for well-received dances in the early 1990s, he had resisted making his own full-length version until he felt he truly knew how to approach the music. "I had a great deal of prior knowledge of the score, having danced in Cinderella as a young dancer," Kudelka says. "I also knew that many productions of the ballet fall on their faces, because they try to ignore the music. It's a very sardonic and grown-up-sounding score for a childhood fairy tale, and in many versions those two qualities never meet. The ideas for my version emerge completely from the score. The music is comprised of short little pieces, and I tried to establish a dramatic continuity, so that things flow more fluidly. I also wanted to avoid the rags-to-riches theme; to me, this ballet is about personal transformation."

Prokofiev's score, premiered by Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet in 1945, is a challenge: it's richer, more complex‹better‹than what is required for a "kiddie" ballet. Following on the advances Delibes and Tchaikovsky brought to ballet music, Prokofiev composed a score that expediently doles out the exposition of Nikolai Volkov's libretto, delineates character with hustle and flow, and then settles down for a dreaming solo or gentle duet. Prokofiev built on what he had learned from his previous dance works, among them the 1929 Prodigal Son, based on the biblical parable and commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for choreographer George Balanchine at the Ballets Russes. Prokofiev finished his score for Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare's drama, in 1936, but dancers at the Bolshoi rejected it as undanceable‹too complicated, and they couldn't hear the beat through all those transparent textures wafting up from the orchestra pit. The ballet wound up being given its first performance in Czechoslovakia in 1938, but had a more important premiere in 1940 in Leningrad, after choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky convinced Prokofiev to make some changes. Romeo and Juliet made a star of Galina Ulanova and quickly entered the international repertoire as an acknowledged masterwork. Prokofiev's instincts weren't always faultless: he had initially wanted to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending. By the time of Cinderella, Prokofiev was assured enough to take risks: he was not afraid of dissonance, and he dragged Russian music into the modern era. In Cinderella he hits low notes with a basso so profundo it's in Sensurround and depicts ugly personalities with oddball combinations of instruments. But when he lets the rapturous sheen of strings gleam, we head straight into the sublime.

Listening to Prokofiev's score, Kudelka heard echoes of the Jazz Age, of a modernist aesthetic growing out of established classical style. So he created a Cinderella with a difference. Kudelka and set and costume designer David Boechler have staged Cinderella in opulent Art Deco style. Think drop-dead gorgeous gowns right out of Erté and men looking suave in lustrous tailcoats. Think Fred and Ginger sweeping through of a glittering night‹a world where anything can happen and dancing is an extension of feeling. Fantasy and reality meet and merge: a photographer darts in and out of the proceedings, snapping pictures with a period-perfect camera, but Cinderella floats to the ball in a giant pumpkin that glows from within.

Although Ballet Theatre's new Cinderella is light years from such revisionist versions as Maguy Marin's eerie staging, populated by oversized dolls moving to cries and whispers, Kudelka makes another break from balletic tradition: here the stepsisters are played by‹are you ready?‹real women. The story has long been a favorite for British pantomime, that colorfully jumbled music-theater in which the domineering Dame is played by a man. Frederick Ashton continued the travesty tradition when he created his triumphant production of Cinderella for Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1948. This was Ashton's first full-length ballet (a form he would successfully develop over the years), the first full-length made for a British company, and the first production outside Russia that featured Prokofiev's score. Moira Shearer made a splash in the title role, and Ashton and the distinguished performer and director Robert Helpmann played the stepsisters, to hilarious effect. Seldom was broad comedy so exquisite.

"Let's face it, no one could play the sisters as well as Frederick Ashton," says Kudelka. "Additionally, we don't have the panto dame tradition here; we have drag. When the sisters are portrayed by men, it's usually played very broadly, just for laughs, with the butchest male dancers up there flailing around. But there's nothing in the score that does that, and there's often this huge disparity between what you are hearing‹a very controlled piece of music‹and what you are seeing. There are no males dressed as females in that sound. I also did not want the sisters just hitting each other. That's boring. I developed their relationship because the music has more to it than just slapstick."

Cinderella is huge right now on the little-girl scene. They all want to be Cinderella, wear sparkly outfits and tiaras, and have mom and dad and the other tots kowtow to them at Cinderella-themed parties. Here's the catch: those little girls only want to be Cinderella after the transformation. Well, who wouldn't; but according to a New York Times article reporting on the current Cinder-trend, many of today's little girls don't even acknowledge the "before" part of the story‹the grueling toil, the lack of appreciation, the life in obscurity.

This is why Kudelka is keeping Cinderella barefoot at the beginning of the ballet, and only receiving toe shoes as the signal of wish-fulfillment, is a potent metaphor. Cinderella's suffering and eventual transformation replicate ballet training: years of repetitive exercise in pliant ballet slippers before ascending into the magic of the stiffened satin toe shoe. The labor pays off, the dues have been paid. The girl rises‹literally‹into womanhood. Dancing on pointe demonstrates growing mastery at the same time that it poses formidable new challenges. A dancer on pointe is a kind of miracle: an entire human being skimming along with the smallest possible speck of contact with the dull, sublunary earth. That effortlessness is only possible after endless hours of rigorously disciplined effort.

Of course, Cinderella's transformation is wrought through the intervention of the supernatural, but even in the most superficial version of the story, it's clear that the girl has suffered and deserves a break. She isn't looking for an extreme makeover; she has unknowingly earned a reward. And it's best not to extend the metaphor too far, since Cinderella isn't the only one wearing toe shoes in the ballet. Still, the fact that Cinderella overcomes adversity gracefully, determined to see what life has to offer takes her out of the commonplace and into the rare. It's a trait she shares with her sisters all the way back to 900 A.D. and beyond.

Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.

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