Cinderella (2013)

Full-length ballet in 2 Acts.
Commissioned by Northern Ballet
Directed and choreographed by David Nixon.
Conducted by John Pryce-Jones with the Northern Ballet orchestra, leader, Geoff Allan.
World Premiere: Grand Theatre, Leeds, December 17th December, 2013.

Read an interview with Philip Feeney about Cinderella

It is rare for opera or ballet composers to tackle the same topic twice. After all, Mozart did not write another Don Giovanni, and there is not a second Nutcracker by Tschaikovsky. However choreographers have been known to, and visual artists will often create many works that feature different aspects of the same subject matter. The fact that David Nixon’s Russian-inspired synopsis for his new Cinderella proved to be quite different from Christopher Gable’s 1993 production, which was centred squarely in the rich folk-tradition of the Grimms Tales, meant that it was more than possible to regard this project as an entirely new undertaking. Only at certain points of the story, which necessarily are inherent in both synopses, does any sense of déjà vu arise. Encouraged, there are a few secret moments of self-referencing, but generally it really does feel like a new adventure. To emphasise this, the score is entitled Zolushka, which is Cinderella in Russian.

One of the standout elements of Nixon’s new Cinderella is its emphasis on the magical elements of the story, magic indeed with a Russian flavour. From the magical cascade of bells at the outset, the score is colourful and descriptive, as in the vivid musical depiction of the winter fair and the crystal lake. Much of this colour is generated from the percussion department, such as the beautiful Japanese bell that heralds the Act 2 pas de deux between Cinderella and the Prince; and at points live percussion is even supplemented by the exotic non-orchestral sounds of the dulcimer and balalaika that appear on audio. Cinderella herself is often accompanied by the fresh sonorities of the woodwind, and, above all, by the harp whose balalaika-like tremolando creates a magical suspension at the start of her Act 2 solo.

The sense of the timeless origins of the narrative is evoked by the gentle humming heard at the start of the ballet, recalling a mother’s lullaby to her child. The haunting melody has its origin in a setting of an ancient Bardic text, composed many years earlier, here co-opted to lend a sense of the remote and the mysterious to a delicate and poignant scene. The first four notes of this melody go on to chart Cinderella’s story and are responsible for much of the musical material, providing motivic growth and thematic integration for the entire score. It is as if the mother’s song acts as Cinderella’s solace and strength.

A further inspiration for the music came from Professor Chris Knight’s Decoding Fairy Tales. Knight, an anthropologist, speaks of leaving the real world behind and entering a world of enchantment; it is here that the ordeal and the transformation will take place that ultimately leads Cinderella to her prince. To that end, at Cinderella’s lowest point, the music marks the entrance of the magician, who will act as the architect of her transformation, by slipping into a new unexpected tonality. Throughout Act 2 the music steadily climbs until at the final resolution we have reached the key of the start, only an octave higher. In this way Cinderella’s final happiness, promised by the bright music at the beginning of the ballet, becomes fully realised both onstage and through the music.