Archive for the ‘Ballet’ Category

Nutcracker & the King of Rats

December 24, 2011

I hope you’ve all been lucky enough to have seen the Nutcracker ballet at least once. It’s an evening filled with Christmas magic. A little girl named Clara is given the gift of a nutcracker doll by her eccentric godfather Drosselmeier. The nutcracker comes to life, battles a pack of mice, transforms into a prince and brings Clara to a magic land of dancing toys, flowers and the sugarplum fairy. The ballet was created by two giants of the ballet world, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. It was first performed at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1892.

But if you’ve ever wondered how the prince got turned into a nutcracker doll in the first place, or why the King of Mice is his enemy, or if you want to know more about the mysterious Drosselmeier, you must go back to 1816 and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story “Nutcracker and the King of Mice.” Here you will learn that the little girl is not named Clara. She is Marie, and her nutcracker doll is not a gift from Drosselmeier. Drosselmeier’s gift is an intricate clockwork castle filled with tiny dancing dolls — which fascinate Marie and her brother Fritz for a short while, then they wander off to play with their new toys. Marie discovers the nutcracker doll, which is apparently a gift from her father, although he says it is a gift from the Christ Child. Drosselmeier is stung by the children’s lack of interest in his castle, and derides the nutcracker as “an ugly little fellow.” Marie’s response is: “Who knows, godpapa, if you were to be dressed the same as my darling Nutcracker, and had on the same shining boots — who knows whether you mightn’t look almost as handsome as he does?”

Clearly this is not the same Drosselmeier we see in the ballet. Onstage, Drosselmeier appears almost omnipotent, sometimes controlling the very movements of the other characters. In the story, there are many things he cannot do, although he does seem to know everything about everyone. There are many parallels between Drosselmeier and the author Hoffmann. Hoffmann, it is said, built a toy castle as a gift for some children when he was living in Berlin. Hoffmann had held posts in the municipal bureaucracies of several cities, while Drosselmeier is a former “Court Clockmaker and Archivist” for the king of Nuremberg. Drosselmeier was banished from Nuremberg, and Hoffmann was forced to leave Warsaw after refusing to sign a loyalty oath to the French after Napoleon took the city.

You probably recall that the Nutcracker is injured by Marie’s brother Fritz, who forces him to crack too many hard nuts. You probably don’t know that Marie is also injured that night. She stays up playing with her toys after the rest of the family has gone to sleep. Suddenly the clock is straining to strike midnight. But a mysterious figure is crouching over the clock, muffling the chimes and uttering a curious rhyme about protecting the Mouse King’s ears. The mysterious figure turns out to be Drosselmeier.

Suddenly the room is invaded by swarms of mice. When the seven-headed Mouse King appears, Marie is so startled she puts her elbow through the glass door of the toy cupboard. The Nutcracker comes to life, commanding Fritz’s soldier toys to repel the mouse army. But the soldiers are outnumbered and many toys are killed. The Nutcracker is about to be captured by the Mouse King when Marie throws her shoe, then passes out on the floor.

It takes a full week for Marie to recover from her injury. In that time, Drosselmeier repairs the Nutcracker’s jaw and tells Marie the “Story of the Hard Nut,” which explains how the Nutcracker came to be. (It is interesting that after Drosselmeier fixes the Nutcracker, his sword is nowhere to be found, leaving the Nutcracker vulnerable to future attacks from the Mouse King. Whether this is another subtle clue that Drosselmeier is on the side of the Mouse King, I will leave for you to decide.)

Briefly, the Story of the Hard Nut is about the feud between the royal family of Nuremberg and Dame Mouserink, the mother of the Mouse King. Mouserink casts a spell on the Princess Pirlipat, turning her into a creature that resembles a nutcracker doll. The king turns to his Court Clockmaker and Arcanist, Christian Elias Drosselmeier, who searches the world for a way to break the spell. Drosselmeier discovers that if the Princess eats a certain fabled nut named Crackatook, after the nut has been broken by the teeth of a young man, she will be restored to her normal state. Above all the young man cannot stumble after cracking the nut. Drosselmeier finds the nut Crackatook in his cousin’s toy shop, and his nephew is given the task of cracking the nut. The king promises the hand of his daughter and his kingdom if Drosselmeier’s nephew can break the spell. The lad successfully cracks the nut and cures the Princess, but stumbles over Dame Mouserink at the last moment, crushing her to death. The nephew is suddenly transformed into the Nutcracker. The Princess is repulsed by his appearance and the king reneges on his promise. Mouserink vows that her son will avenge her death, and the Mouse King becomes the sworn enemy of the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker can only return to normal if he destroys the King of the Mice, and wins the love of a woman in spite of his deformity.

Unfortunately for Marie, the Mouse King is not vanquished in his first encounter, and begins to blackmail her. First he demands all her Christmas candy, then Marie’s collection of figurines made of sugar. Marie lets him take these treasured toys and candy in exchange for the Nutcracker’s safety, but the Nutcracker is savagely bitten and the Mouse King returns with more demands. Astonishingly the Mouse King now wants all Marie’s picture books, and her dresses and laces. Marie realizes the folly of appeasement and asks her brother to provide Nutcracker with a new sword.

The next night the Nutcracker appears in Marie’s room, and presents her with the Mouse King’s seven crowns. He has defeated his enemy, and asks her to accompany him to his kingdom, Toyland.

How do they get to Toyland? By climbing up the sleeve of her father’s fur coat. When Marie looks out through the collar of the coat, she is in Candy Mead, a small meadow outside the capitol city. The Nutcracker brings her through various towns and villages on the outskirts of Toyland. Everywhere he is greeted as the prince. I was a bit disappointed to see no mention of the characters Marzipan, Mother Ginger or the Sugarplum Fairy. After a ride across a lake of rose scented water in a craft pulled by swans, Marie enters a great marzipan castle and meets Nutcracker’s sisters, who prepare a feast for them. During the preparations, a fog arises and Marie awakens in her bed.

Only after the visit to Toyland does Marie declare her love for Nutcracker. Moments later, Drosselmeier is introducing Marie to his nephew, who proposes marriage to her. She agrees, and they become king and queen of Toyland.

The story does leave some unanswered questions. How did the nephew, a toymaker’s son, become prince, and then king of Toyland? How did Marie’s father come upon the Nutcracker and decide to give him as a Christmas gift? But the biggest questions center around Drosselmeier. Why is he not more supportive of his nephew? The Nutcracker becomes bitter and resentful at the mention of his uncle’s name. Drosselmeier is sometimes kind to the Nutcracker, as when he repairs his broken jaw, and other times gives him no help at all, even appearing to side with the Mouse King.

In the final scene of the story, where Drosselmeier introduces Marie to his nephew, his behavior is very kind and there appears to be no tension between them. While this is open to interpretation, I do not see Drosselmeier as an inherently sinister character. His nephew had to be the one to slay the Mouse King, if he was to regain his human form. Drosselmeier could not do this for him. His attempt to cover the chiming clock may have merely been an attempt to bring about a confrontation between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. (But there is that issue of the missing sword …)

Although today this story is his most famous work, E.T.A. Hoffmann did not consider “Nutcracker and the King of Mice” to be a successful story, stating that it would have been better to either have written a children’s story or a symbolic narrative for adults, not both. Interestingly this is very close to what Drosselmeier says when his clockwork castle is ignored. “After all, an ingenious piece of mechanism like this is not a matter for children, who don’t understand it.” But the story is a coming-of-age tale, about a girl who loves her toys and dolls, who must make sacrifices, and grows to become a woman who loves and marries. The great success of the Nutcracker ballet proves that children DO understand it, and its message is also greatly appreciated by adults.

I hope everyone gets a chance to see the Nutcracker ballet this Christmas season, and please seek out and read Hoffmann’s story as well. It really will provide more depth to the ballet. You can find it in a collection of his stories titled “The Best Tales of Hoffmann” and there is also a version illustrated by Maurice Sendak (who wrote Where The Wild Things Are).

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Giselle, or The Wilis

October 29, 2011

A horrifying tale for Halloween!

Giselle is a happy dancing peasant girl. Nothing in the first half of her story will prepare you for what happens in the second half! Ballerinas consider the role of Giselle to be the most challenging of all the major ballets, because Giselle goes through such a dramatic change.

The first act of the ballet is pretty interesting. There is a love triangle, with a creepy peasant guy named Hilarion, who Giselle spurns because, well, he’s creepy and his name is Hilarion.

Anyway, Giselle falls deeply in love with a handsome mysterious stranger. And the two new lovers do much happy dancing together. Then a royal entourage passes through Giselle’s little village. Giselle and her mama offer them hospitality, and Giselle gets to meet the royal lady who is engaged to marry the Count.

Then, as so often happens in love triangles, the story starts to turn sinister. Creepy Hilarion discovers an unpleasant secret about the handsome stranger. Breaking into the stranger’s cabin, Hilarion finds a sword– a royal sword! The handsome stranger– he is actually the Count! This is a secret that’s too good to keep, so Hilarion makes sure that Giselle finds this sword as well.

And so Giselle discovers that the handsome stranger that she fell in love with is engaged to marry another woman. She goes mad, running through the village with her lover’s sword, in an erratic wild dance that is probably the most disturbing part of the entire ballet.

The happy peasant girl completely vanishes, what’s left is a raving madwoman. Her grief has robbed her of her senses. She waves the sword around wildly, and suddenly gripped in a fit of passion, stabs herself to death.

This was in 1841. 119 years later, Alfred Hitchcock would be called a genius for killing off Janet Leigh in the early scenes of his movie Psycho.

But never mind about that. It is time for the curtain to rise on act two.

Giselle stands in front of her grave.

She is a ghost. Sort of.

She meets a ghostly queen. The Queen of the Wilis. A Wili is an evil female spirit. In life, they were young women who died before their wedding night. They dress in full white gowns like brides, with tiny wings on their backs and a wreath of white flowers in their hair. They kill people, usually men, but it doesn’t really matter to them. They were betrayed in life and they take revenge in the afterlife.

It is a Wili’s job to linger at the shores of a lake, waiting for a weary traveler to pass by. They surround him and they dance him to death, leaving him to drown at the bottom of the lake.

Giselle is a ghost. But she’s not just any kind of ghost. She wears a full white gown like a bride, and tiny wings on her back, and a wreath of white flowers in her hair.

And she has a job, and she’s expected to do it, for the rest of eternity.

A weary traveler is walking down the road. A creepy peasant guy with a goofy name. Yes, it’s Hilarion. Giselle watches as a horde of the Wilis surround him and destroy him.

There is a kind of ghastly justice to this, and personally I can’t feel anything other than enjoyment to see creepy old Hilarion get what’s coming to him. But then, what’s this? Another traveler on the road appears.

The Count has come to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave.

There is a dawning realization here. Why would the Count think twice about a  peasant he had a little fling with? Why isn’t he back in his castle, or off chasing another girl?

There is only one answer of course, and it’s true love. It’s too bad his fate is sealed. And so of course, is Giselle’s. She has a job to do. She has been betrayed, and it is her job to take revenge. Now and forever.

The Wilis then swarm around the Count, ready for another kill. Giselle should be the one to deliver the killing blow.

But she refuses. Giselle defends the Count and forgives him.

Her love transcends all, and triumphs over fate. The Count escapes the Wilis with his life. Giselle escapes them too. She melts away, away to wherever it is the dead go off to.

FIN

Congratulations, Katie!

January 25, 2009

If you missed it, here are some photos from last night’s Miss America Pageant.

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The winner is Katie R. Stern, Miss Indiana, who has a wonderfully expressive face.

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Now who doesn’t wish they were her right now? Even for a few minutes maybe?

There she is

Les Ballets Trockadero

June 18, 2007

I saw another great ballet company on DVD yesterday, but this one was something special. Les Ballets Trockadero is a New York-based ballet troupe with no female dancers. They do dance many of the classical ballets, however, they just put their male dancers in tutus.

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Like most drag shows, Les Ballets Trockadero performs with a satiric tongue-in-cheek style. Unlike most drag shows, these are highly talented dancers, a fact you immediately recognize when these men go up on pointe.

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In an odd way, this ballet company reminds me of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters were primarily about getting laughs from the fans, but they also showed spectacular skills. Meadowlark Lemon routinely scored hook shots from halfcourt. The Trocks do some hilarious clowning around, but it takes real skills to do a lift like this:

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Or this:

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Male ballerinas may not be as pretty to look at, but they can leap higher.

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I bet you’ve never even seen a ballerina do a cartwheel.

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Another fascinating thing about the Trocks: they can put their hijinks aside for a bit, and eventually you can forget that this is an all male company.

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I’m not exactly sure how they pull this feat off. Dance is so much about costume and about gesture and the way you carry yourself. There are hundreds of little cues that keep telling us about gender in dance. Without those cues, the people in the upper balconies would have no end of trouble sorting out what’s what, or who’s who. Just the simple joining of hands, as shown above, suggests a group of females. Some of the biggest laughs come from the moments when the dancers step “out of character” and make more identifiably “male” gestures.

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Anna Pavlova was famous for her dance where she skillfully danced the death throws of a swan. “The Dying Swan” is parodied brilliantly by a Trock in a tutu that continually leaks feathers.

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The Trocks have two DVD’s available. Like most ballet DVD’s they are way overpriced, but you can rent them at Netflix. You’ll laugh a lot, but you’ll say “Wow” a lot too.

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Swan

April 13, 2007

I’ve been catching up on the japanese comic book Swan by Ariyoshi Kyoko. About two years I wrote this little book review of Swan #1. This review originally appeared in the webzine Knuffles.

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I’m not a big fan of Japanese comics but Swan is something exceptional. It’s the story of a young girl named Masumi who does not have magical powers, nor is she collecting cards or trying to retrieve a stolen talisman from an ancient monster bent on ruling the universe. Masumi simply wants to become a ballerina, and Swan is the story of her journey. It’s clear intent is to get more japanese girls interested in ballet.

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There were 21 volumes of Swan originally published in Japan from 1976 through ‘81. CMX, a division of DC Comics, is now reprinting them in english. The first three are now in bookstores (the fourth will be available in early August), and I suppose if they sell well enough, all 21 will eventually be available.

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There are some oddities to japanese comics (‘shojo manga’ if you want to impress people). To read the book, you start at the back and work your way to the front. Word balloons are placed from right to left, and there isn’t always a little pointy bit that shows who is talking – you need to figure it out for yourself. Characters transform radically when they experience extreme emotions. Their eyeballs disappear when they’re shocked and when they’re embarrassed they catch fire. Since Masumi is such an emotional girl, she is always shrinking or exploding or otherwise making herself tricky to identify. These idiosyncrasies can be a bit distracting, until you get into the story.

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The Swan is a beautiful lacy valentine to the art of ballet. Curls and flower blossoms brim over the edges of the panels and everyone has impossibly long eyelashes. But these ballerinas sweat a lot too, and they fall over when they get tired. They are often in competition with each other, leading to a lot of the drama and conflict.

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When you bring young dancers together there is bound to be a lot of emotions, and the artwork skillfully conveys the melodrama, using a pastiche of styles. Realism, impressionism, and abstract styles are used, along with the odd conventions of manga, sometimes all on the same page. But don’t let the evocative art distract you from the well crafted story.

In the opening scene, the Bolshoi Ballet Company are performing in Tokyo. Masumi has come from her country home to see the great dancers perform Swan Lake. The ballet is sold out, but she barges in anyway and meets the dancers backstage. Overcome by the dance of Maria Prisetskaya and Alexi Sergeiev, Masumi throws off her shoes and performs the dance of the Black Swan before their amazed eyes. Prisetskaya and Sergeiev are flattered and moved by the girl’s spirit and passion.

Incidentally, there was a Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta named Maria (Maya in Russian) Plisetskaya. Several famous ballerinas make ‘cameo’ appearances in the Swan, including Galina Ulanova, Moira Shearer and Japan’s own Morishita Yoko.

When Masumi returns home, she receives a mysterious invitation. Promising young dancers from all over Japan have been brought together to compete in a new contest. Even when Masumi discovers that Sergeiev is one of the judges, she cannot imagine why she’s been brought here. She’s never been in a dance competition or even in a performance.

“How many of you can remember the words of Margot Fonteyn when she visited Japan?” asks one of the judges. “She said ‘Japan will most likely become the focal point of ballet in the world, after France and the Soviet Union.’ Will her prediction come true or not? Either way, ballet in Japan must aim for the world arena. And its future rests wholly on YOUR shoulders.”

The winners of the competition will receive training from Sergeiev and from other international ballet stars. Masumi feels totally outclassed by the other dancers, and her lack of confidence becomes one of several stumbling blocks.

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Every now and then in the course of the story, one of the characters will say to another, “Let’s go see a ballet,” and there is a little instructional interlude. In volume 1, we get a brief glimpse of La Sylphide, Ramonda, Sleeping Beauty and the film “The Red Shoes.” The book opens and closes with scenes from Swan Lake.

The story does not follow the usual ballet story clichés. Masumi is, in fact, not the best of the young dancers. Her impulsive emotions hurt her in competition, and her training at a provincial dance school has given her flaws in her basic ballet steps. What she does have is a great natural talent and a dedication to work.

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Masumi’s story is not a simple series of ascending victories. She fails a lot but she learns from her failures. One of the things she learns is that ballet is not simply dancing. As a ballerina, you are playing a character. You must experience the emotions of that character, and cannot bring your own fear onstage with you.

After a shaky first round and a disastrous second round, Masumi leaves the competition. But Sergeiev recognizes her potential, and Masumi is called back to be trained alongside the contest winners.

8practice.gifAfter the contest, the truth emerges. A National School of Ballet is being established and Masumi and the eight contest winners will be the students. Exchange programs are being set up, and the students will compete against each other to see who will perform in a special performance in Moscow.

Masumi decides to try out for the main role of Princess Aurora, instead of trying for an easier role, so she must compete against ‘Princess’ Kyogoku, a gifted and experienced dancer from a Tokyo ballet school.

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Sergeiev drills Masumi in her basic ballet steps, but he also imparts some interesting ballet facts, such as when he compares a common ballet gesture to the position of Christ’s hands in DaVinci’s The Last Supper. He also gives some truly fiery lessons in ballet history.

Volume 1 does not resolve the plot, it leaves you with a cliffhanger, after all they want you to rush out and buy volume 2. Will Masumi succeed in her challenge to Princess Kyogoku? Will she win the chance to dance in Moscow? The book does a good job of getting you hooked, and you can be sure it will leave you with another cliffhanger in the next volume.

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I hope this little book report will spark your curiosity enough to look for Swan. You don’t have to go to Japan, or to a specialty store, many bookstores now have a small section for manga or ‘graphic novels.’ It’s also available on Amazon and the other online booksellers.

Sadler’s Wells Cinderella

February 12, 2007

Sunday I had the chance to watch a wonderful ballet from 1957 – the Sadler’s Wells Ballet production of Cinderella.

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This made-for-television production was made back in the days when television broadcasts were not considered any more permanent than anything done on stage. A copy was made of the broadcast, but it wasn’t a very good copy and it wasn’t treated with the sort of archival care that we all wish it had received. Almost 50 years later, the print is hard to look at, and if it weren’t for the wonderful performances of Dame Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet, the flickering, washed-out images would have been too annoying to sit through. After awhile, you can force yourself to ignore the print and watch the ballet, as if watching it through the frame of an impressionist painting. But I wouldn’t recommend watching it on a widescreen tv. A small laptop would be a better choice.

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Margot Fonteyn was 38 when this broadcast aired, but she still conveys the childlike grace, energy and wonder of a young girl. There is no evil stepmother in this production, making the story less sinister and more comic. The stepsisters are vain and mean to each other, but they’re so hilariously clumsy you can’t imagine them being too much of a threat to Cinderella.
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The creator of the Cinderella ballet, Sir Frederick Ashton, plays one of the stepsisters. What some men are willing to suffer for their art! (rolls eyes)

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That’s Sir Frederick with the bride of Frankstein hair. The sister with the Princess Leia hair is Kenneth MacMillan.

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The stepsisters prepare for the ball.

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Cinderella has fun trying on her big sister’s wrap, and one of their wigs.

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Cinderella’s fairy godmother first appears as a lame beggar, but soon reveals her true form. This fairy godmother has four helpers, named Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

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Dame Merle Park’s dance is one of the hardest parts of the ballet to see. ChromaKey was really primitive in those days. Spring’s gift to Cinderella is a beautiful tiara.

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Summer’s gift to Cinderella is a robe to wear over her dress.

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I couldn’t get a good screenshot of Autumn, but she does a memorable dance where she leaps out of a pile of fallen leaves and gives Cinderella a pair of glass slippers.

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Fairy Godmother summons Winter.

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I love the icicles on Winter’s costume. Winter gives Cinderella a beautiful diamond necklace.

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This coach was originally a pumpkin. Now that’s magic!

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The “theatrical” special effects like this hanging clockpiece, tend to work so much better than the “video” special effects like ChromaKey. Maybe because this particular effect is so integral to the storyline – the ominous warning of the limitations of magic.

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The ballroom scene is so delightfully different from any ballroom scene I can remember. The stepsisters and their screwball slapstick are front and center.

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The prince is usually upstaged by other characters in the story, but since when was the prince upstaged by a court jester?

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Cinderella arrives with a full entourage.

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In the most magical part of the ballet, Cinderella enters the ballroom and glides en pointe to center stage.

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The four seasons seem to have received invitations as well.

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What makes this ballet fun is when the romantic and the comic elements juxtapose, like this wonderful moment of raw jealousy.

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Fonteyn is more than a remarkable dancer. She also has a beautifully expressive face.

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Cinderella gives one of her sisters an enormous apple, which her other sister quickly snatches away.

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What’s that sound? Is it Y2K already?

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Worse! It’s midnight!

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Act Three opens with some lighthearted play between the sisters.

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It’s interesting to notice how many admiring glances the “ugly” sisters receive from the ladies in the company.

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After the usual slapstick with the slipper, the prince discovers his princess, to the stepsisters’ dismay.

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The fairy godmother serves as minister for the wedding.

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And they lived happily every after.

To my amazement, the “DVD extras” have nothing to do with Sadler’s Wells or Sir Ashton’s choreography or Fonteyn’s career, but the commercials that originally aired with the broadcast.

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I’m hesitant to tell you to run out and buy this DVD. Prolonged watching could be bad for your eyesight. But definitely rent it if you can, if you want to see Margot Fonteyn’s astonishing grace and Frederick Ashton’s comical take of this classic fairy tale.