Playbill Notes: The Story behind the Story of Cinderella

From Texas Ballet Theater's 2010 production of Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo by Ellen Appel.

From Texas Ballet Theater's 2010 production of Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo by Ellen Appel, courtesy of Texas Ballet Theatre.

With opening night of Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella nearly upon us, we wanted to take a moment to share with you a bit of the fascinating history that surrounds the original Cinderella fairytale. Read this excerpt from pages 6-9 of Ballet SJ’s Cinderella Playbill, which can be downloaded and read in its entirety from the Ballet San Jose website.

One of the great ironies of life, and of art, is that out of pain is born beauty. A country is torn apart by war. A mother dies young. Artists hundreds of years apart give birth to story and music that will become the stuff that dreams are made of. Such is the path of this ballet. —Cinderella.

The Cinderella story is perhaps one of the best-known and best-liked fairy tales in Western culture. Like many folk tales, the origins of Cinderella can be traced back centuries, and individual elements of the story can be found in almost every corner of the world. It has been estimated there are at least 1,500 variations on the theme of Cinderella worldwide.

The earliest written versions of Cinderella trace back to ninth century China where a tiny foot was the mark of extraordinary virtue, distinction, and beauty; but records indicate a version of the story that dates to the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau are Biblical examples of one sibling being suppressed or destroyed by the other. In Germany, there were tales of an “ash-boy” forced to live among the ashes, but eventually he becomes a king.

The tradition of storytelling has always contained an educational component, probably as strong as the entertainment value. Many “fairy” tales were actually “cautionary” tales used to teach young people the dangers of the world and how to protect themselves (physically and emotionally). Bruno Bettelheim, one of the great interpreters of the physiological impact of fairy tales, has commented that probably no other tale, so well as Cinderella, expresses the experiences of a young child in the throes of sibling rivalry and the feelings of being pushed down and bullied (in this case by her stepsisters). As a cautionary tale, Cinderella gives hope to the child that eventually she will be delivered from her misery, and that hidden under her rags, greatness and true merit will somehow be discovered.

There are, of course, many other meanings to the tale. The relationships between the girl and her father, the girl and her dead mother, and even the girl and the Prince probe ideas that are hidden beneath apparently innocent surfaces. According to Bettelheim, “the child who enjoys Cinderella will respond mainly to one or another of the surface meanings most of the time. But at various moments in his development toward self-understanding, the child’s unconscious will be enlightened by one of the story’s hidden meanings.”

When Charles Perrault wrote his version of Cinderella for the 1697 volume Contes de ma mère l’oye (Tales of My Mother Goose) he created a very different tale than had been told by earlier storytellers. He removed everything he felt would be objectionable to members of the royal court of Louis XIV (his intended audience) and invented a great many details that today form the most popular elements of the story.

Gone are tales of murder and revenge that populate many of the early Cinderella stories. Gone are tales of a mother’s reincarnation as a fish or other animal. In their place are new elements, including the famous glass slipper. There had never been a slipper of glass before. Gold, yes; silver, yes; even silks, but never glass. In Perrault’s version, a Fairy Godmother bestows a gown and other gifts on Cinderella. In earlier versions, the gifts were usually provided by animals, or their spirits. The changing of the gown back to rags at the last stroke of midnight was another invention. Even the pumpkin made into a coach and the mice turned into horses are Perrault conceits. But all have come together to form the version of the story that we are most familiar with. And this is the version of the tale used by Ben Stevenson to create his beautiful ballet.

Sergei Prokofiev’s score for Cinderella is one of his most endearing works, with beautiful memorable melodies and a sharp, world-wise humor. A fascination with childhood, its purity, wonder, and adventure are audibly evident, as well as the heightened realism of a 20th century populist master composer and orchestrator living through dark times.

The music propels the narrative with color and passion, closely following Perrault’s storyline; the tender yearnings of Cinderella, the dissonances experienced with her stepsisters, and the sumptuous waltz with the Prince. This is a fairy tale, but like all fairy tales, it has an undercurrent as it was composed between 1940 and 1944 during the darkest days of World War II.  Indeed, at the height of the fantasy, as the clock strikes midnight, we hear the chaos and cacophony of battle, and sobriety returns.

But ultimately, Prokofiev remained a Romantic at heart, moved by folk idioms, ethnic influences, myth, and a commitment to love as the foundation for human relations. Prokofiev wrote that he saw “Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person who thinks, moves, suffers, and rejoices like one of ourselves.” This musical play between reality and fantasy, innocence and adult perspective is an ideal setting for a classic coming-of-age tale in which a disadvantaged young woman, armed with kindness and beauty, must find her rightful place in a cruel, dangerous, and oppressive world.

Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella has proven a very important ballet for him. It was the first original full-length ballet he choreographed and was an immediate success at its premiere in 1970 for the National Ballet in Washington D.C. It is, today, the most-performed version of Cinderella in the United States.

Stevenson chose to use men as the ugly stepsisters, giving the ballet a more rough-and-tumble, slapstick quality that always has the children in the audience roaring with laughter. He shortened the piece from earlier versions by cutting the Prince’s world-wide search for the owner of the glass slipper and the divertissements of the faraway lands. His highly theatrical style perfectly complemented the fairy tale, without robbing it of the importance of its moral center.

In a New York Times review, Anna Kisselgoff called it a “triumph” and noted that it was “bereft of the sardonic updating that has ruined so many other treatments of Prokofiev’s well-known ballet score.” She praised the “crystalline, classical pas de deux of the ballroom scene” between Cinderella and Prince Charming, and the final duet “that expresses their deeper love in a more contemporary style.”

Mr. Stevenson’s Act I divertissement for the Fairy Godmother includes four men who partner her as dragonflies and exquisite solos for the four fairies who serve her (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter). Kisselgoff lauded Stevenson’s originality in “distilling the essence of the seasons.”

It was immediately obvious to everyone at Ballet San Jose that even 40 years after giving birth to this ballet, Ben Stevenson still cares deeply about his Cinderella, having spent several enjoyable days in San Jose watching company class and rehearsals while personally casting the piece. He has entrusted the staging of the ballet to the fine dance and acting skills of Tim O’Keefe who, has appeared in a number of Stevenson’s works including the world premiere of Cleopatra and the title role in Dracula, a role that he has performed to critical acclaim across the globe.

Add to the mix Ballet San Jose’s own Artistic Consultant, Wes Chapman, who performed the role of Prince Charming in 1997 at American Ballet Theatre, and this Cinderella has the feeling of a family affair. “Ben is a great storyteller,” says Chapman. “He has an amazing sense of humor. But at the center of this story is the moral that it really is okay to dream. Good things can and do happen to good people. And never be afraid to forgive.” That is a lesson that Cinderella can teach us all.

–Lee Kopp

Ballet SJ’s Cinderella opens this Friday, May 4, at 8:00 PM at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts downtown. American Ballet Theatre’s Sascha Radetsky will perform the role of Prince Charming on the evenings of Friday, May 4, and Saturday, May 5. Visit www.balletsj.org or call the Box Office at (408) 288-2800 to buy your tickets today!

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