Cinderella (Stevenson)

Choreographer: Ben Stevenson

Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Costumes and Set Design: David Walker

Lighting: Tony Tucci, recreated by Barbara E. Thompson

World Premiere: National Ballet of Washington, April 24, 1970

PBT Performance Dates: October 1995, April 2002


PROGRAM NOTES (From April 2002)

Fairy tales are the embodiment of our hopes and our fears.  In many instances they teach moral and ethical standards and social mores.  Present in every culture, surprisingly, many of the stories repeat themselves in various ethnic garbs.  Often the theme is one of inner beauty and purity of spirit overcoming loneliness, cruel mistreatment and vanity.  Cinderella, the age old story about the cinder-girl, is both familiar and well-loved.  It is estimated that there are over 1500 versions of the Cinderella story existing in cultures around the world.  Each has incorporated local settings and ethnic customs.  The earliest known Cinderella story was told in China about 1200 years ago.  Entitled Yu Yang Ts Tsu, the young heroine’s name is Yeh-hsien. 

The best known version, especially in Western cultures, appeared in a collection of tales set down in 1697 by a retired French civil servant named Charles Perrault.  His “Contes de ma mere l’oje” or “Mother Goose Tales” brought us not only Cinderella, but also Little Red Riding Hood, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, and Puss In Boots, among others.  Cendrillon, or Cinderella in English, has inspired pantomimes, operas, ballets, musicals, films, and television.  It is probably safe to say that a large percentage of our population was introduced to Cinderella through Walt Disney’s animated version of Perrault’s tale. 

The earliest known Cinderella ballet was presented in 1813 in Vienna.  Of course, in the 1890s, the Russian ballet triumvirate of Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Enrico Cecchetti staged their version with music by Baron Fittingov-Schell.  Interestingly, Cinderella was to have been the first ballet of Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker), but it never materialized.  Since Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella premiered in 1944, a commission by the Kirov, it has become the most often used score for a Cinderella ballet.  Written in the true tradition of a Russian ballet with pas de deux, adagios, gavottes, waltzes, other folk dances, and variations for each character, it also followed the storyline of the Perrault tale.

Many ballets have been choreographed on this lovely little ash girl from 17th century France, but today the most often staged production is Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella.  Stevenson was working with the Harkness Youth Ballet in 1970 when he was asked to create a Cinderella for the National Ballet of Washington D.C.  It was such a success that he was asked to join the company as co-director with Frederick Franklin.  Stevenson’s production has been adapted to many companies both large and small.  He also chose to use Cinderella in 1976 for his debut as artistic director of the Houston Ballet.

Margaret Putnam, a dance writer who contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, writes about Stevenson’s Cinderella with exceptional insight and sensitivity.  The following excerpt is from her article, The Glass Slipper, for American Ballet Theatre and is printed here with permission from Stagebill.

The popularity of Stevenson’s “Cinderella” is easy to explain:  it’s true to the fairy tale, in outline and in spirit.  Neither cynical nor sugary, his Cinderella breathes with the ardent longing of a sweet young girl, and lets the moral virtues undergirding the tale – loyalty, justice, generosity – shine through.

            Though Prokofiev can throw a curve with dark tones and ironic if not cynical twists, Stevenson knows where the heart of “Cinderella” lies:  in the heroine.  “The key to Cinderella is she’s a dreamer,” he says.  “Dreams keep her going and make up for her friendless state.  While you want her to be a waif and downtrodden, she can’t be too spiritless, too woe is me.”

            “So after she’s been tormented by the two step-sisters, she picks up the broom and starts dancing with it, and gets completely caught up in her dream.  And when she goes to the ball, she falls in love.  It changes her.  It’s a secret, and for her, just meeting the Prince and knowing love gives her something to hold onto.”

            Stevenson’s Cinderella, though demure, has backbone.  She stands up to her step-sisters when they harass her weak, gentle father.  She defies her step-mother by giving an old beggar food.  And most winning of all, after the stepsisters have lurched and floundered through a dance lesson, she gaily, wickedly parodies them alone in the kitchen.

            The good-natured humor of this production, in fact, is one of its great virtues.  The step-sisters are played, as McKenzie [Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre] puts it, “by the biggest, butchest guys you have,” very much in the tradition of Frederick Ashton’s ungainly dancers in drag.  They’re ugly, clumsy, and oafish, and their cruelty to Cinderella is not so much motivated by viciousness as colossal self-absorption.

            In an age that dwells insistently on the raw sexual side of love, the other great virtues of Stevenson’s “Cinderella” are romance and decorum.  The Prince and Cinderella meet, fall into a rapture of amazement, and become immediately oblivious of the swirl of ball-goers around them.  Love means transcendence, beautifully expressed in the low, gentle lifts of their first pas de deux, and fidelity, expressed in the more confident pas de deux of the wedding.

            The challenge to doing a fairy tale ballet, says Stevenson, is to find “the human connection of the story . . . You have to feel there’s real blood rushing through these characters.  It can’t be just a tippy-toe and tutu ballet.”

            “Yes, of course, it’s stylized,” he adds.  “It is ballet.  But while not many people can do a pirouette, they know love and courage.”

Sergei Prokokfiev was commissioned to write Cinderella by the Kirov Ballet in 1940, following the great success of Romeo and Juliet.  Composition of the work was interrupted by the outbreak of war between the USSR and Germany, which prompted Prokofiev’s epic opera War and Peace.  He returned to Cinderella in 1943, and the score was completed in 1944.  The first performance took place at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, on November 21, 1945.