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When Cinderella was premiered by the Sadler's Wells Ballet in December 1948, it was not only Frederick Ashton's first full-evening ballet, but also the first production in the West to use Prokoviev's score - less well known than his Romeo and Juliet, but just as danceable. The original decor was by Jean-Denis Malcles, and since then it has been redesigned three times: the current version has scenery by Toer van Schayk and costumes by Christine Haworth.

The plot is a straightforward version of the traditional story. Cinderella has two step-sisters (usually played by men) but her step-mother doesn't appear, and instead of a 'Buttons' or 'Dandini' character the Prince has an attendant Jester. To provide more opportunities for dancing, the Fairy Godmother brings the Fairies of the Four Seasons to dance for Cinderella before she sets off for the ball.

On this simple framework Ashton has built a wonderful ballet, using a typical mix of the finest choreography with comedy, irony, and at times an underlying sense of sadness. At the heart of the piece is the meltingly beautiful pas de deux for the Prince and Cinderella at the ball, but the solos for the Seasons and the dances for the corps de ballet of Stars would also feature in any 'essential Ashton' anthology. If you've seen other versions, the structure of the last act may surprise you, as the Prince's round-the-world search for Cinderella is cut entirely; and don't expect a triumphant 'wedding' pas de deux at the end - this is Ashton, master of the understatement.

Tamara Rojo and Jonathan Cope
Photograph copyright John Ross

Cinderella (created by Moira Shearer because Margot Fonteyn was injured) is a gorgeous role for a ballerina: lovely scenes as the drab waif in the kitchen, needing sensitive acting and a sense of humour, and then in Act 2 she can pull the stops out as the radiant Princess. (Her famous entrance, walking on pointe down the great staircase whilst gazing straight ahead, must be terrifying to do but it is always a magical effect.) Almost every Royal Ballet ballerina has danced it: the best make the most of the contrast between kitchen and ballroom. In recent years Miyako Yoshida, Darcey Bussell, Belinda Hatley and Sarah Wildor have all brought different aspects of the role to life, and Alina Cojocaru's very appealing interpretation was recorded for television last year.

The Ugly Sisters will be familiar to anyone who's ever been to an English pantomime (though Ashton always said he'd never seen one). They were originally played by Robert Helpmann and Ashton himself - both of them performers touched with genius, and an impossible act to follow. Since they retired, the 'Ashton' sister - a pathetic downtrodden lady - has been done with some success by Michael Coleman and David Bintley, but the bossy, dominating 'Helpmann' sister seems to defeat everyone. The current first cast has Wayne Sleep and Anthony Dowell in the roles, pleasing some but far too exaggerated in their antics for others.

The ballet has had hundreds of performances in its nearly fifty years, but has to take its turn with Nutcracker as the 'Christmas treat' piece. Every revival gains new admirers: it is our classic Cinderella, against which all newcomers are measured.

Cinderella and the Prince walk off into the sunset
Photograph copyright John Ross

The photograph of Frederick Ashton which appears at the top of each page is copyright Leslie E. Spatt - click here to see the full version.

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