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Flash News, 9-22: Sister Act
Robert Joffrey gets his Dream Cast for Ashton's "Cinderella"

By Paul Ben-Itzak
The Dance Insider
Photography by Herb Migdoll

To hear Edwin Denby tell it*, in his Ballet review of the 1948 Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet original at the Royal Opera House, Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella," the first evening-length classic ballet by an English choreographer (set to Prokofiev's score), finds its most overpowering performances not in the pure dance passages between the principal characters but in the pantomime created for the two step-sisters. Of course, this might have something to do with the casting Denby caught, featuring the choreographer himself ("Ashton's unexpected triumph onstage is the sort of accident that happens to geniuses," Denby wrote) and Robert Helpmann, England's greatest mime, in the parts. So it's a good thing that in fulfilling its founder's longtime dream that it become the first U.S. company to perform the work -- beginning October 4 at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre -- the Joffrey Ballet has also secured Robert Joffrey's dream cast for the roles: Company legends Gary Chryst (in the part of the shyer sister created by Ashton, who almost stole the show from the pure dance despite Ashton's efforts to tone himself down) and Christian Holder.

"'Cinderella' is the first brand new, full-(evening) story ballet we have mounted since 'The Nutcracker' premiered in 1987, so this is truly a landmark event," said artistic director Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the company with Joffrey in 1956. (With a budget of $1 million, it is also the company's most expensive production to date.) "Robert Joffrey originally envisioned Gary and Christian for these roles" -- both were signature dancers for the troupe from the late '60s through '70s -- "and we are delighted to have them return and help bring his dream to fruition. In doing so, we also pay homage to all the dancers of this company -- past and present -- who have helped to make the Joffrey Ballet great."

(l-r) Gary Chryst and Christian Holder as the step-sisters in the Joffrey Ballet production of Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." Herb Migdoll photo copyright Herb Migdoll and courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

Indeed, the only potential liability of employing charismatic figures like Chryst and Holder would appear to be that, like Ashton and Helpmann, they will have to be careful not to steal the show. "The farce mime in the ballet is so amusing and so long in each act," Denby noted, "it is in danger of killing the dance scenes; as choreographer of it, Ashton keeps the clowning gentle and, what is more, all the pantomime completely comprehensible -- a lovely feat." And one not without musicality. The miming, Denby reported, "looks free, it isn't stylized or Mickey Moused to fit the notes, but it derives its phrasing and the emphasis from the shape and the stress of the musical phrase as spontaneously as the dancing does."

For pure dance choreography, Denby said, Ashton's "great moments are a set of classic variations for girls representing the Four Seasons (the Good Fairy calls each in turn to attend Cinderella), and a number of entrances for the Jester (Alexander Grant, in the cast seen by Denby) during the ball.... In the Jester's leaps Ashton has timed the rhythm to the leap's arrival (instead of to its departure from the ground) and because your ear anticipates the rhythm, the crouching dancer's downward course through the air keeps the beautiful suspense of an animal pounce. More delicately Ashton uses the same device in the feminine Seasons variations and there too it gives the dancer an other-than-human presence. These four classic solos in their conciseness and grace of style, their freshness of fancy and purity of evocation are Ashton's masterpiece. They don't look like Petipa or Balanchine and are worthy of either."

To ensure the authenticity of its production, the Joffrey will have the services, as stager, of Wendy Ellis Somes, a former dancer with the Royal and the widow of the ballet's first Prince, Michael Somes, as well as the owner of its intellectual rights.

*As collected in "Dance Writings" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986), edited by Robert Cornfield and William Mackay.

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