Ballet in 3 Acts for full orchestra, with additional electronic tape, commissioned by Northern Ballet Theatre
Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Gable
Assistant Choreographer: Rachel Lopez de la Nieta
Designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting Design: Paul Pyant
Sound Design: Murray Laverick and Philip Feeney
Additional Orchestration: John Longstaff
Originally created on Jayne Regan and William Walker
First performed at the Lyceum, Sheffield in September 1993, by the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conducted by John Pryce-Jones.
Cinderella is Philip Feeney’s first full-length ballet. It was mostly composed during the Ballet Central tour in the spring and summer of 1993. Indeed the composer had started work on it the previous autumn, but two unexpected commissions, Derek Williams’ Extenzion for Northern Ballet Theatre and Michael Keegan-Dolan’s What Fools these Mortals Befor Ballet Central suddenly surfaced and delayed crucial work on the ballet. Consequently its creation was something of a white heat affair.
Gable drew on the many different origins of the Cinderella myth, steering clear of the powdered wigs and cross-dressing ugly sisters (known as ‘the beautiful daughters’ in this production) more familiar to ballet. To this end it follows versions of the story that date back to ancient China, and which inspired the story of Aschenputtel by the Brothers Grimm. In this narrative there are three balls, (indeed, there are two in the ballet) and the stepsister’s foot is mutilated in order to fit the slipper, provoking hideous punishment as ravens peck out their eyes (certainly one of the most violent scenes in the score). Neither does Gable shirk the child abuse latent in the story, made more painful by Jayne Regan’s extraordinary interpretation of the vulnerable, lost Cinderella.
Gable was keen for the music to have a non-European flavour, and some research was done on traditional East European and in particular Georgian music. Little of it survives into the score, but there remains something of a distinct and unique flavour to the musical language of Cinderella, with its strong sense of the rural and the folkloristic, especially in the opening harvest scene. This allows for music that is simple and direct, even when it is ugly and dissonant, serving to create an intense, emotionally-charged work which perfectly underscores the narrative.
This impression is helped by the unusual and vivid orchestration, driven by the horns with their 4 against 3 opening motif. Feeney’s scoring generally leans heavily on both the piano and the percussion, and, needless to say, there is a large colourful contribution from both. In fact, there are solos for almost all the instruments of the orchestra, ensuring there are moments when the scoring is cut back to an intimate chamber music style. The violins felt a bit under-cooked, especially shying away from the col legno battuto in Act 1, that describes the pecking birds gathering lentils spitefully spilled by the stepmother; but the violin section was able to get their teeth into the expansive pas de deux in Act 3, where they play the broad theme in unison. NBT’s brilliant musical factotum, John Longstaff, provided additional orchestration and created the orchestral suite for Naxos.
The piano is central to the musical texture, and is a fully operational multi-keyboard part, requiring the musician to change patch often. In addition to the digital piano, with its harpsichord and vibraphone patch, the part includes the Akai S950 sampler. A home-grown sampled metal sound dominates much of the red ball sequence. In Act 1, the beautiful daughters are ridiculed by a flock of sheep noises, emanating from the sampler. The sheer manual complexity of operating this digital kingdom (it wouldn’t do for there to be sheep in the wrong place!) led to expanding the part for two keyboard players for the 1998 revival season.
It is a complex electro-acoustic score. Feeney had first worked with click tracks for NBT with Strange Meeting, and there are several sizeable click track sequences in Cinderella, especially for the entrance to the wedding in Act 3. In Act 1, supernatural events are sometimes represented by spatially dislocated echoes on the tape. Perhaps the most characteristic technology used in the ballet is the use of an effects machine, the SPX 990, to enhance and alter what is being played live. In Act 2, the simple clarinet solo is insidiously distorted for the incest pas de deux, and in Act 3 a synchronized delay accounts for the magical trumpet solo for the Blue Ball. There were some doubts whether the trumpet might be too forceful for this scene, but with the addition of the sound effect it creates a golden enchanted atmosphere for Cinderella to meet her prince.
Dancer and choreographer, Luc Jacobs, once remarked that unlike most ballet scores, Cinderella sounds good for just solo piano, despite its colourful orchestration. Perhaps that is why the two third Act pas de deuxs live on in Ballet Central, where they are programmed every now and then as a homage to Christopher Gable, their founding director.
The score for Cinderella was the composer’s last large score before computer musical notation tidied everything up and depersonalized the manuscript score, thereby finishing the craft of hand-copyists forever. Of course along with the character and personality of a manuscript score, there were plenty of errata and spelling mistakes, prompting a quip from the music staff: ‘he can write a chaconne but he can’t spell one!’
John Longstaff’s arrangement of the orchestral suite from Cinderella was recorded for Naxos by the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conducted by John Pryce-Jones.
An article by Noel Goodwin, Made to Measure, discussing Feeney’s score of Cinderella, was published in Dance and Dancers, 1994.