Some readers may recall that, back in April of 2019 when I wrote about the video release of The Frederick Ashton Collection: Volume One, I concluded that my greatest curiosity in the Ashton canon was Cinderella, his own choreography based on the score that Sergei Prokofiev had completed in 1944 for Rostislav Zakharov’s choreography at the Bolshoi Theatre, first performed in November of 1945. This choreography used the ugly stepsisters as comic relief, possibly to be performed by male dancers. When it came to those two characters, Ashton had such a field day with that “comic relief” that, as I have previously mentioned, New Yorker critic Winthrop Sargeant described the result as the story of two very droll old maids that happen to have a beautiful stepsister, who goes off and marries a prince.
Sadly, while the second volume in this series consisted of three full-evening ballets, Cinderella was not one of them. However, John Vernon directed a video of a performance of Cinderella given by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in 1969, and it was released in 1970 as a movie for television. That video was uploaded to YouTube almost exactly two months ago by Elaine Jung; and it is definitely a “must see” offering, particularly for those not yet exposed to Ashton’s sense of humor. Ashton’s “partner in crime” in the role of the other stepsister was Robert Helpmann, a significant Royal Ballet “veteran” as a choreographer, as well as a dancer. (Ashton and Helpmann were also “partners in crime” in the 1951 film version of The Tales of Hoffmann, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.)
Comedy aside, Vernon’s video provided an excellent opportunity to observe young talents on the rise. The leading roles were taken by Antoinette Sibley (title role) and Anthony Dowell (the prince). The fairy godmother was danced by Georgina Parkinson; and the performers of her four “season fairies” were Jennifer Penney (spring), Vyvyan Lorrayne (summer), Ann Jenner (autumn), and Deanne Bergsma (winter). Most amusing, however, was the diminutive Wayne Sleep, who had to catch a rather larger Ashton in a flying leap:
screen shot from the video being discussed
Whatever Sargeant may have written about the abundance of comic turns in Ashton’s choreography, neither Cinderella nor the prince have been relegated to “secondary status.” There is a refreshing youthfulness in Sibley’s dancing that reminded me of the equally refreshing youthfulness that Francesca Hayward brought to the role of Juliet in the film that Michael Nunn and William Trevitt created based on Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography of Romeo and Juliet. For that matter, back in the Sixties, when everyone was following Rudolf Nureyev’s every move, I was far more interested in watching Dowell rise through the ranks (an ascension that led to becoming the Royal’s Artistic Director in 1986).
The bottom line is that Ashton’s Cinderella is far from “traditional.” However, Ashton had no end of insights into the wide diversity of human nature. Cinderella shows us several sides of human nature that we might not have associated with the fairy tale but tell us much about the very nature of character.