because we underestimate Cinderella at our peril


Once upon a time there was an unhappy girl. Her unhappiness was caused by her cruel and selfish stepmother and stepsister, who dressed her in rags and forced her to do all the household chores. When her stepmother and stepsister were invited to a big party, the girl was forced to stay at home. But that night, a magical intercession changed her luck and she, wearing a dazzling new dress, went to the party and obtained a royal husband, despite the loss of one of her golden slippers.

And Ye Xian thanked the haunted fishbones that had brought her to this blissful state — and didn’t care too much to learn that her stepmother and stepsister had been crushed in a rockfall caused by one of their horrible fights. about whose turn it was. to clean the house.

The story we know as Cinderella has deep roots. They have blossomed since the 9th century, when this version was published in Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang, a portion of Tang Dynasty morsels by poet Duan Chengshi. They bloom again this month, when the Royal Opera House stages a new production of Cinderella, the much-loved ballet with music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography set in 1948 by Frederick Ashton. And on Broadway, where Linedy Genao is about to make her lead role in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Bad Cinderella. They just enlivened the London Fashion Week catwalk, where British designer Patrick McDowell dressed his models in Swarovski-encrusted boots to tell a Cinderella story about women’s football. They are also visible when a case of child cruelty is reported in the papers or when we discuss clinical priorities in the NHS. Our mental health service – the mechanism for treating unhappy girls – is often said to be the “Cinderella service”.

What should we conclude from this? That Cinderella is one of our most vigorous myths, and unlike some of her fairytale peers, her heroine remains unknown to Walt Disney. Or anyone else, for that matter. Not by Rogers and Hammerstein, whose 1957 musical version was produced for stage and screen without achieving a hold on cultural memory. Not from the Sherman brothers, whose The Slipper and the Rose (1976) was a museum piece even when it premiered. Not since sharper, wittier ventures like Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1987) or Anne Hathaway’s film Ella Enchanted (2004), the alternative self-consciously assumes a canonical version that doesn’t seem to be there at all.

Most modern versions of the story have their origins in Charles Perrault’s Stories or Tales of the Past (1697), a collection of folktales drawn from oral tradition but made less grotesque and gruesome for easy consumption at the French court. Perrault’s Cendrillon, or glass slipper, is the source for Prokofiev and Ashton, Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola (1817), the creators of the Cinderella pantomimes, and the screenwriters of the 1950 Disney film. (The brothers’ version Grimm, Aschenputtel from 1812, retains some of the blood: the ugly sisters are not forgiven in the end, they are blinded.)



The Perrault treatment gives us a virtuous, beautiful and passive heroine. Cendrillon weeps as he watches his stepmother and her siblings clatter to the ball in an extravagant carriage—then the fairy godmother arrives to solve her problems with a pumpkin and some transmogrified animals. Not all adapters in history liked these qualities. Maurice Rapf, a Disney screenwriter and a registered member of the Communist Party of America, was frustrated by Cinderella’s lack of action. (“You can’t be served on a platter,” he insisted, as she tackled the story in the late 1940s. “You have to earn it.”) He wrote a scene in which Cinderella rebels against her family by pelting them with household items. But he was abandoned, and so was he. (Rapf left Disney under a political cloud, and only a sudden bout of the mumps saved him from an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

The Disney Cinderella (1950) was made when the studio was under $4 million in debt incurred from the wartime loss of its European markets. To save him from bankruptcy it took a great success like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of 1937. The wish was granted. Cinderella brought enough box office magic to get the company out of the red and build the income that allowed it to branch out into television and theme parks. The film was also a critical success, except in one respect. Cinderella herself, who was, said Variety, according to Maurice Rapf, “on the colorless, doll-faced side.”

If we go back to Perrault, however, the doll vanishes and the color resurfaces. According to Gessica Sakamoto Martini, an anthropologist expert in the more than 600 variations of the Cinderella story, the earliest tales rarely fit the pattern of “a passive girl who waits crying for something to appear to save her without doing anything to change her situation, until until all her misfortunes are suddenly erased with her marriage to the prince.”



In Basile’s La Gatta Cinderella (1634), for example, the heroine kills her stepmother and persuades her father to marry his governess. In some Greek versions of the tale, the sisters kill and eat their mother: the heroine collects her bones and smokes them like kippers for 40 days and 40 nights – an act that transforms them into gold, diamonds and the beautiful dress she wears. when she meets the prince. A Danish variant forces the heroine to fight trolls in a forest of copper and gold, accompanied by a magical bull.

Others see Cinderella using a disguise of animal skin to escape the threat of incest in the family home or communicating her true identity to the prince by dropping a jeweled ring into his soup. “What makes Cinderella’s story special,” says Martini, “is that it shows us that even in a powerless situation we can actively reclaim our freedom and free will.”

When a ballet company performs Ashton’s Cinderella, its freedom is limited. The choreography – partly a satire on the conventions of the 1940s Bolshoi – cannot be changed. The new production at the Royal Opera House, by the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, will find other ways to make its mark on history – including through the work of video designer Finn Ross, whose digital images will generate the environment through which the dancers will move. “You have to be careful with it,” he says. “People have lived with this choreography for 75 years. You have a rather valuable piece of jewelry in your hands that you cannot spoil too much.

Ashton, however, was generous. He made the ballet itself the object of Cinderella’s desires. When we meet the heroine, she is dancing with her broomstick and dreams of being a ballerina. Instead of glass slippers, the Fairy Godmother gives her a gorgeous pair of pointe shoes. Dance is the new life in which Cinderella dreams of taking refuge. Ross won’t be drawn to how she shapes the space to accommodate those desires, but he says photographer Tim Walker’s magical realist images were on her mood board. (Walker photographed Tilda Swinton as a pale mystic with antlers of bouffant hair, and Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot as an angular, non-blonde Alice in Wonderland.)

“In those images, the debate is whether this is the world you see in the person’s head or does this person inhabit that image as reality? It could be argued that in Cinderella none of this happens in reality. Is she escaping her into an alternate universe to cope with the misery in which she is forced to live? It’s like American Psycho. Does any of this really happen? (This is not an example taken from the air: Ross engineered the musical American Psycho with Matt Smith.) And the nature of his misery is clear to him. “The sisters know exactly what they’re doing. They are engaged in an act of modern day slavery.

In the end, it’s always about the unhappy girl. The girl who works, without reward. The degraded and abused girl. The girl who is forbidden to leave the house and uses magic to get what she wants. Walt Disney failed to capture Cinderella, because Cinderella’s story is about escaping capture. She is about a slave girl who finds her freedom as well as her prince. This is a story that could do more than just entertain us for an evening at the ballet or provide material for a bedtime story. It could turn the world upside down.

The Royal Ballet’s Cinderella is on stage at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from 27 March to 3 May. Tickets: 020 7304 4000;

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