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Why 'Cinderella' is a struggle on 'Breaking Pointe'

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Music is often missing from discussion on the CW's “Breaking Pointe,” even going into tonight’s episode which portrays the final preparations and the opening night of “Cinderella.” The show airs locally in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. on channel 5, the CW. Adam Sklute, artistic director for Ballet West, as well as the dancers themselves continually mention that the dancers aren’t ready for opening night with no explanation as to why this could be. Here are some reasons why this particular production of “Cinderella” is so difficult technically and musically.

Most of the ballets still in production today are favorites from the music's late Romantic Era, the late 1800s. The music was more lyrical, as were the steps. However, as music changed in the 20th century, so did ballet. Composers and choreographers began to experiment with the art form, pushing the extremes of both.

The Ballet West “Cinderella” features a score by the 20th century Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, which was first performed in 1945 by the Russian Bolshoi Ballet. In keeping with the 20th century’s many social and political upheavals, the music is often dissonant. Prokofiev also wrote ballet music for “Romeo and Juliet,” an opera version of “War and Peace,” the tone poem with narrator, “Peter and the Wolf,” and scores for seminal Russian films.

Predating Prokofiev, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (1913) was so musically dissonant, and the ballet steps so purposely ugly, that it caused riots and protests. A complex composer, Stravinsky also wrote neo-classical style music for "The Firebird" (1910) which is still frequently produced today, and highly technical in its steps. Today, “Rite of Spring” is considered a work of musical genius.

Every time the ballet is mentioned on “Breaking Pointe”, it's called the "Ashton Cinderella." Ashton refers to the choreographer Frederick Ashton, who took Prokofiev's musical score and created his own version. Ashton gutted the parts he didn't want, and changed parts to represent Cinderella as a comic ballet, based on the fairy tale written by Charles Perrault. Ashton himself performed an Ugly Stepsister role, alternating with the Prince. In the "Breaking Pointe" version, principal dancer Christopher Ruud takes on the same roles.

It’s not just the music which is distinctive, Prokofiev's "Cinderella" has been choreographed by several other choreographers, but this choreographer presents special technical challenges such as Cinderella’s entrance to the ball down a staircase on point while looking straight ahead. The Salt Lake Tribune review of the performance noted, “The Ashton choreography tilts dancers off center while they remain on pointe. It requires dancers to change directions while looking the opposite way, and creates intricate hypnotic patterns.”

Allison Debona stated in her Spreecast interview, “I loved my role as Winter Fairy. That entire ballet was very challenging for all of us at Ballet West mostly because it is a style of dancing that we aren’t used to…” She displayed how ballerinas are normally taught to hold their hands throughout dance classes. “One of the things Wendy Ellis Somes often asked to do was not use our fingers at all. She wanted a clean line. And I know most people think, ‘It’s just your fingers.’ But, no, when you’re thinking about all of that technique in your head, and you’re dancing a variation, but then you have to worry about your five little fingers, it adds a crazy element to it. And we’re very expansive dancers, but the Royal Ballet have lower arms and an arabesque line, when ours our usually higher. So, we were challenged in amazing ways…I’m so proud of Ballet West.”

Malin Thoors, former dancer with the Swedish Royal Ballet, and the staging director put it a bit differently, "American dancers need to get the port de bras — a special way of using the arms — it's a different shape," Thoors said. "They're used to Balanchine, so they are a little freer in their arms, and that is something we are going to work on." And work on it, Ballet West did.

The only other ballet to perform this choreographer's version of the work is the Joffrey Ballet, who toured it to Los Angeles is 2010 with Wendy Ellis Somes, former Royal Ballet principal, teaching the choreography. Somes’ husband, Michael Somes, also a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, alternately danced The Prince and Ugly Stepsister. She danced the title role in the 1980s, but certainly took part in many other productions of the work.

Aston cut the Prince's journey to foreign lands in search of Cinderella, which served as a pretext for national dances, national music, and different characters presenting them in solos; much like one sees in Tchaikovsky’s "The Nutcracker." He also cut a dance for grasshoppers and dragonflies which occurred after the variation for the seasonal fairies. Of the cuts, Ashton said, "I didn't like any of the places he went to, nor the music he wrote for them." Instead, he made his choreography about the urgency of time and dreams.

Just as Ballet West dancers deal with injuries, the first Cinderella in the Ashton version was supposed to be Margot Fontyn, but, thanks – or no thanks – to injury, ended up being the red-headed Moira Shearer. The fire-haired Christiana Bennet echoes this casting. As portrayed on “Breaking Pointe,” Ronnie Underwood has a broken foot and isn’t dancing at all, while Rex Tilton struggles with a torn tendon in his foot. Christiana Bennet struggles with her own injuries just before opening.

In the Ballet West "Cinderella," the second cast features the stars of “Breaking Pointe” with Christiana Bennet as Cinderella, Rex Tilton as the Prince, Beckanne Sisk as the Summer Fairy and Allison DeBona as the Winter Fairy, Zach Prentice as Napoleon (one of Cinderella’s suitors, and Ronald Tilton as another of Cinderella’s suitors. Ron Tilton and girlfriend, Katie Martin, were featured last year on “Breaking Pointe.” Christopher Ruud, director of Ballet West 2 and principal dancer, performs another night.

Unfortunately, “Breaking Pointe” fans will only see edited snippets of the final performance rather that then full length show. The Ballet West performance already took place months ago. To find out more about Cinderella’s history, please check out the links. And if you go back to the CW’s website, and watch old episodes, you will understand a bit more of what’s going on with the dancing and the music. To read a little more about Ballet West’s “Cinderella,” check out this archived article from the Salt Lake Tribune, or visit www.BalletWest.org.

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