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The Joffrey Ballet in Cinderella

Posted on October 4, 2006

One has to grab any opportunity there is nowadays to see an Ashton ballet; even The Royal Ballet, which after the centenary celebration of 2004 might be thought to have restored his works to the ascendancy in its repertory that they deserve, now appears only grudgingly to offer a few performances of Rhapsody early in 2007, and of Symphonic Variations towards the end of the season. The Joffrey Ballet, now based in Chicago, presented its own production of Cinderella early in October, and it was worth braving the vicissitudes of air travel to catch the first night. In any case, it is always a pleasure to attend a performance in the superb Auditorium Theatre, one of the city’s many architectural treasures.

The Joffrey Ballet has a long history as the chief American repository of Ashton’s ballets. Robert Joffrey had a special relationship with Sir Frederick: he was able to acquire the first American production of The Dream, as long ago as 1973. Moreover, the Joffrey is the only company outside The Royal Ballet organisation to have danced A Wedding Bouquet, and it is now the only American company to present Cinderella. This was Joffrey’s long-held wish, now realised, 18 years after his death, by his successor as artistic director, Gerald Arpino.

Cinderella has been staged by Wendy Ellis Somes, who owns the rights to the ballet, and Christopher Carr. There were nine performances, with four casts. Joffrey always wanted Gary Chryst and Christian Holder, company veterans, to play the Stepsisters, and they returned as guest artists in all but one of the casts. Holder was properly vain and overbearing in Robert Helpmann’s original role (like others who have assumed it, he overdid it at times), but it was Chryst, in Ashton’s, who found his own characterisation – sweet and winsome, even rather pretty, but with occasional flashes of temper.

Maia Wilkins, as Cinderella, had not quite internalised the emotions of the first act, but in the second both she and Willy Shives, as the Prince, touchingly expressed their wonder at the miraculous turn of events they find themselves caught up in. Both their pas de deux, the first in the ballroom scene with its exquisite dying fall, and the second, shorter one at the end of the ballet, had all the tenderness one hoped for. Ashton, as always, gives us more than a ballerina and her partner – the poignancy of two young people falling in love.

One of the things that have gone from this ballet is the faintly sinister atmosphere of the ball – rather reminiscent of Night Shadow (La sonnambula), which Ashton could have seen in the production by the Cuevas Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo the year before he made Cinderella. Shives is an excellent actor (both he and Gary Chryst were marvellous as the Bridegroom in the Joffrey’s Wedding Bouquet – and curiously, Shives here plays Cinderella’s father in another cast), and could have conveyed the Prince’s sense of oppression from which the advent of Cinderella has rescued him.

Also long lost, of course, is the ambiguous character of the Jester, as played originally by Alexander Grant, the Prince’s boon companion, who sadly watched the departure of the lovers at the end – he doesn’t even appear in the last scene any more. Now he is more like one of those pesky Jesters in Soviet Swan Lakes. Calvin Kitten dances the part brilliantly enough (he was a fine Puck in the Joffrey Dream), but I can’t help wishing that someone would ask Grant to help bring back the nuances of this role.

The choreographic heart of this ballet, in addition to those pas de deux, lies in the dances of the fairies of the seasons and the ballabili of the Stars, products, no doubt, of those private lessons from Marius Petipa that Ashton used to say he received at performances of The Sleeping Beauty. All these were beautifully realised: I especially liked Kathleen Theilhelm as Summer and Jennifer Goodman as Autumn, both of them bendy enough to satisfy Ashton himself, and Valerie Robin, as Winter, spreading a film of ice with her ronds de jambe.

This production is set in the third of the four Royal Ballet designs, those by David Walker from 1987, subsequently used by Dutch National Ballet and the Royal Swedish Ballet. They are not ideal, though preferable to the most recent Royal version. There is no hope, presumably, of resurrecting the original 1948 designs by Jean-Denis Malclès; of later versions, I would rather see the second, by Henry Bardon and David Walker, with its beautifully painted drops. I wish I could have seen this revival later in the run, when it had shaken down somewhat, but already it is a worthy addition to the Joffrey’s list of Ashton revivals.

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