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This article originally appeared in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times on May 28, 2006.

I SEE Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person, feeling, experiencing and moving among us,” Sergei Prokofiev has been quoted as writing of his score for the ballet “Cinderella.” Composed in 1945, it has inspired numerous choreographers with very different takes on the theme, among them, recently, James Kudelka. His “Cinderella,” created in 2004 for his home company, the National Ballet of Canada, will be given its New York premiere by American Ballet Theater on Friday at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Mr. Kudelka’s primary intentions seem to echo Prokofiev’s statement. “I wanted to give the characters a human texture,” he said in an interview at the company’s studios.

He shied away from “Cinderella” for at least a decade, he said, because he disliked the rags-to-riches scenario: the idea that the Prince, with his wealth and power, condescends to rescue poor Cinderella. In his ballet the two rescue each other. Cinderella allows the Prince to escape the superficial life of his court, while he offers her the single-minded attention and love her unthinking, unfeeling stepfamily never provided. Attracted by the transformation theme in the tale, Mr. Kudelka takes it from pumpkin-into-coach level to personal evolution. “Call it dime-store psychology, if you will,” Mr. Kudelka said, “but I think it works here.”

His Cinderella is a young woman who is not so much put upon as confused. “She doesn’t know it’s love she’s looking for, because she’s never experienced it in her dysfunctional family,” he explained. “The stepmother and stepsisters are suburban social climbers who care only about appearances.”

Cinderella’s prince suffers similarly as heir apparent in a court devoted to luxury, vanity and social one-upmanship. Once the hero and heroine meet, find that they “complete each other,” as Mr. Kudelka puts it, and conquer the obstacles in their way, they choose to settle down in simple domestic tranquillity. “My main objective, from beginning to end,” Mr. Kudelka said, “was to make this story make sense.”

The Cinderella story is an ancient one, having first appeared in print in ninth-century China. It was first published in Europe in the 1630’s in an anthology of folk and fairy tales recounted lustily in Neapolitan dialect by Giambattista Basile. The versions best known today, if often in bastardized form, come from the Frenchman Charles Perrault and the Germans Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Working in the first half of the 19th century, the Brothers Grimm conjured a “Cinderella” heavy with horror: torture, self-mutilation (to make the foot fit the shoe), birds pecking out the eyes of the wicked. Perrault’s version, by contrast, is urbane: elegant and witty. Despite his sly social satire he offers an optimistic view of human nature, allowing Cinderella’s virtue to extend to forgiveness of the evils previously done to her once she has come into her kingdom.
“Cinderella” was performed as a ballet long before Prokofiev wrote the music now so closely associated with it. Records of European productions date to the early 19th century. Marius Petipa may have had a hand in a production at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1893. And in 1938 Michel Fokine took it up for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo with less than memorable results.
Meanwhile the Cinderella theme is said to have tempted no less a composer than Tchaikovsky, and Johann Strauss turned to the tale for his only ballet. But it was Prokofiev’s score that provided the catalyst for Cinderella ballets that would last. Which is not to say that it makes the choreographer’s job easy. A sardonic and foreboding tone underlies the ecstatic passages, contradicting the idea of virtue rewarded and suggesting instead that evil lurks just about everywhere.

This score, though intended for the Kirov Ballet at the Maryinsky Theater, was first choreographed in 1945 by Rostislav Zakharov for the company’s Moscow-based rival, the Bolshoi Ballet. A year later Konstantin Sergeyev created the Kirov’s version, revising it in 1964, presumably following the trend of the time to replace mime with dancing. Typical of Soviet ballet, those early versions delivered the story in a simple, straightforward way, making clear its core sentiments: rage, scorn, pathos, pity, wonder and romantic bliss.
Frederick Ashton created one of the most rewarding “Cinderella” ballets to date, interweaving the tender, the comic and the luminous. It was choreographed in 1948 in London for what is now the Royal Ballet. Its enduring appeal was evident in its enthusiastic reception at the Lincoln Center Festival’s Ashton Celebration of 2004. It will also be presented in Chicago by the Joffrey Ballet this fall.

Ashton was fortunate in his original cast, whose individual gifts seem imprinted on the roles. The ballet was intended for Margot Fonteyn (though an injury kept her from dancing at the premiere). The character of Cinderella called upon her natural ability to convey unadulterated goodness, wistfulness and spunk, and to chart the course of love, from its burgeoning to its elated fulfillment.

Inevitably more recent years have brought newfangled takes on “Cinderella.” Maguy Marin’s 1985 version for the Lyon Opera Ballet, a bleak, haunting view of childhood, outfitted the dancers in grotesque masks and body padding to turn them into life-size dolls. Rudolf Nureyev’s 1986 production for the Paris Opera Ballet, which gave the story a Deco-era setting and a heroine who yearns to be in pictures, was all colorful, outlandish fun. Alexei Ratmansky’s 2002 version for the Kirov depicts family and society as cynical environments barely tempered by the hero and heroine’s tender romance.

Although Ballet Theater has had two earlier productions of “Cinderella” in its repertory — a quirky version by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Anastos, created for the company in 1983, and Ben Stevenson’s popular conventional production, acquired in 1996 — Kevin McKenzie, the company’s artistic director, thought it was time for something new.

“I was delightfully engaged by James’s approach,” he said of Mr. Kudelka’s version. “It’s serious theater that is very funny. Its humor is innocent and, at the same time, sophisticated and irreverent. It has some of the most complex choreography imaginable, yet overall it looks simple and natural.”

While Mr. Kudelka’s “Cinderella” is unusually heavy on ideas, it doesn’t neglect dancing for its own sake. The complex patterning for the fairies, with four soloists weaving at high speed through an ever-shifting maze formed by the ensemble, looks like a close-call victory of order over chaos. By contrast, the dawning-love pas de deux for the hero and heroine embodies Mr. Kudelka’s ideal of “dancing that has such a natural flow the audience doesn’t realize it’s seeing steps,” he said. “The dancer simply looks like an emanation of the music.”

The ballet also provides sheer entertainment. The shenanigans of the stepsisters aspiring to high society have a near-slapstick quality. The shoe theme is given sly running commentary, beginning with a barefoot Cinderella who graduates to pink-satin point shoes only when she has reached glass-slipper stage, which they symbolize. Not least there’s the airborne pumpkin that descends on the royal ballroom to deliver Cinderella as if it were her private helicopter or a glowing orange spaceship.

Copyright © 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

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