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."
Victoria Jaiani, 24, a native of Tbilisi in Republic of Georgia, will don Cinderella's slippers at the Chandler. She admits, "It's very hard to dance, with clean, pure lines. It's very cool to do on stage; it's so magical, especially the costume with a huge beautiful cape. It feels real. I am the Cinderella, and all eyes are on the Cinderella."
Twice during the ballet the ballerina rips around the stage in a daunting double round of pirouettes.
"It's a very hard manège," says Wheater, using the ballet term for steps executed in a circle. "It includes three types of turns, and she takes the entire stage. Then, in the pas de deux, she circles 'round the Prince. It's really hard to chaîné-turn around someone!" (This moment provides yet another time visualization when, spinning, Cinderella embodies clock hands run amok, as in a cartoon.)
Jaiani has no fear: "I love it. It's a double manège; it's very rare, especially for girls. She's excited and overwhelmed by what's happening to her."
Wheater first danced for Ashton at age 14 in Benjamin Britten's "Death in Venice." "I worked with him on lots of things. When I got older he rehearsed me in 'The Dream' and 'Monotones II.'
"He was a wonderfully kind person, gentle, very clear. I just remember once [when] he thought that I was talking on stage. It was the only time I ever saw him get mad with me. He came up and slapped me 'round the face. He said, 'I never want to see you talk on the stage again.' And of course I was this cheeky little boy. I said to him, 'It wasn't me.' And he said, 'Don't answer me back!' It was a totally different era," he remembers with a laugh.
"He smoked like a chimney. He would always have a cigarette in his fingers. He would walk up to you, and he would want to tilt your head for the correct angle, I always thought he would burn my ear with his cigarette," Wheater recalls.
"His choreography is so three dimensional. It's not flat. The body is always in épaulement (the shoulders in coiled opposition to the spine), which is glorious; the body bending, twisting and moving. Épaulement is being lost today."
Wheater sums up: "Ashton epitomized British ballet. He gave the Royal Ballet a style that was uniquely their own."
Ashton, Joffrey connection
Having danced for Ashton and Joffrey qualifies Wheater to stage "Cinderella." "It was incredible to join the Joffrey and be able to rediscover all the Ashton ballets I'd had the opportunity to dance in London and in Australia," he says.
"Robert Joffrey was a phenomenal man. He and Ashton got on so well. There was a mutual respect between the two, both true believers in the art form," Wheater says. Coincidentally, both men died in 1988, Ashton at 83, Joffrey, of AIDS, at 57. Joffrey, he adds, "always wanted to have 'Cinderella.' He died too young."
The Joffrey's presence on Bunker Hill reminds dance fans of the years 1982-92, when it was resident ballet company at the Los Angeles Music Center. Sasha Anawalt, director of Arts Journalism Programs at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of "The Joffrey Ballet," says: "During the Joffrey's multiple-week residencies at the Chandler, Friends of the Joffrey would house the dancers. Friendships formed. There are still strong vestiges of that era, and a lot of people who loved those times would like to get them back. If Ashley Wheater could reignite love of the Joffrey in Los Angeles, I think there would be affection and an embrace."
Wheater is on board: "I was part of the great bicoastal Joffrey Ballet of the '80s. I would like to see Los Angeles embrace the Joffrey again. There is a very strong relationship and we need to see it blossom."
Noting that his peripatetic career has come full circle, Wheater says: "To return to L.A. as the artistic director of the Joffrey with an Ashton ballet -- well, we all dream things that rarely happen . . . but this is a magical moment for me."