Cinderella Interview

You have had a long relationship with Northern Ballet. How does it feel to be working with the Company once more, and what is it that keeps bringing you together?

Yes, to some extent Northern Ballet feels like home. I cut my teeth in composing full-length ballets with the company over twenty years ago. I have also developed collaborative associations with the dancers, and have, in Ballet Central, composed scores with Northern Ballet choreographers, certainly including David Nixon himself, but also Kenny Tindall, whose Signature 31/30 was included in the pick of the Edinburgh Fringe earlier this summer, and Daniel De Andrade, for whom I am currently creating a score for this year’s Ballet Central annual Tour. Furthermore it goes without saying that I hold the musicians of the orchestra and the Northern Ballet music staff in great respect. When composing for companies across the world, I have often missed the dynamic interchange and sheer expertise that they would bring to a project. What keeps bringing me together with Northern Ballet is their dedicated commitment to narrative ballet and to new scores. With narrative ballet a specially commissioned score opens up so many possibilities, allowing for great dramatic swiftness of foot, which can be blocked by using existing music and tugging and pushing it into shape in order to fit the synopsis. Another thing is Northern Ballet’s ambition. The company have never been cramped by their modest size into modest aspirations. David Nixon has triumphantly continued in the tradition set up by Christopher Gable of a can-do culture and of pioneering narrative work.

You have previously composed a score for Northern Ballet’s Cinderella in 1993. What was it like to work with Cinderella again?

Yes, it’s very rare for a composer in opera or ballet to tackle the same story twice; there are a few examples in Metastasian Baroque Opera, but we don’t have two Magic Flutes or two Coppélias. And there’s no doubt that it was a challenge. Initially I was quite unsure as how to engage with a subject that I had already created music for. However David Nixon and Pat Doyle’s synopsis took the story into quite different territory. Whereas Christopher Gable’s Cinderella is a visceral re-telling of the Grimm’s Tale, by setting it in the late 19th century with a Russian theme Nixon provided quite a different and tempting context, which enabled me to think afresh when dealing with this timeless ancient folk-tale. Of course we still have the prince and the dysfunctional family, and it was at these moments when I needed to dig deep and find a new way of depicting it, and not just fall back on a solution I had discovered twenty years ago. But undoubtedly the collaboration with Nixon provoked different ideas and different musical avenues. In the score the work is entitled Zolushka which is a Russian name for Cinderella. I use that, partly to make archiving easier on the computer, but also to give it a separate distinct identity.

How does the new score compare to the one produced for the 1993 production?

My score for Christopher Gable’s production of Cinderella is still very dear to me, and had many elements that are still fresh, raw and emotional even now. When writing the new ballet, one area where I was slightly intimidated was in the two pas de deuxs that Cinderella has with the Prince in Act 2, which must be at the heart of any score dealing with the Cinderella story. Both the Blue Ball and the Fireside pas de deuxs from the 1993 production have lived on in Ballet Central programmes, encapsulating the human tenderness implicit in the story. But I feel that the new score also creates its own unique sense of magic, a beautiful Japanese bell and a hesitant violin jeté fashioning an enchanted space where young love can take hold, and David’s choreography has done the rest. In many ways, however, the new score is a tighter score, in which we can follow Cinderella’s narrative by means of the thematic growth in the music. The gentle lost music heard soon after the opening, symbolic of the love of Cinderella’s dead mother, provides the basis for most of the musical material in the score, acting almost like a protective angel, and like Cinderella, coming good in the end.

Has it been difficult to avoid allowing the previous score to influence the new one?

When debating exactly what my approach should be when embarking on a second version of Cinderella, I turned to an old Cambridge friend and colleague, the in independent curator and Professor of the Bath School of Design, Mike Tooby. How was it, I thought, that while composers baulk at the idea of returning to the same subject, painters and visual artists seem quite content, even inspired to do so? Tooby encouraged me with the idea of embracing the first version, and to allow it to inform the newer account, seeing at as merely the latest re-telling of an ancient tale. While none of the music of the 1993 production is used in the new score, there are points when it is self-referential. Devotees of the earlier score will I’m sure hear resonances at certain points in the story which are equivalent. An enriched and spatially infinite piano glissando that periodically creates moments of wonderment in the new score could be said to have its origin in the beautiful moment of Jayne Regan’s flying release from persecution at the end of Act 1 of Gable’s production.

What have been the challenges with producing this new score?

The challenges, over and above those dealing with writing a new Cinderella mentioned above ….: the challenge is the same as any undertaking that adds music to a story told through movement, to find a music world that is not only the equivalent of the dramatic situation on stage, but can actually control its dynamic. Other challenges have to do with the standard balance at Northern Ballet between creative ambition and small forces. I know there are passages, like the closing bars of Act 2, for the percussion that unplayable; they would need a percussion section consisting of six rather than simply two musicians. However I have left it up to them to find a way, so that we can have a flavour of glockenspiel, tamtam, timpani, cymbals and (for goodness sake) tubular bells to send us all out in a glow of celebration. The extraordinary thing is that they will!

How has the music influenced how the story will be told?

That of course is the real value of a new score expressly composed for a specific production. The entire score underlays Nixon’s story; indeed at points the choreographer allows the music to tell the story, to create the shadows and texture that are so powerful in the Cinderella story. This allows for a choreography which not histrionic, but honest, even underplayed, and which communicates with genuine emotion. When Cinderella flees from the ball, it is the music and the set coming alive that reflect the young girl’s desperate turmoil.

What external influences or musical styles have you used when producing this new score?

Some of my scores take on something of an eclectic channel-hopping technique where diverse and contradictory musical styles are co-opted to tell the tale, something which has a long and respected tradition in theatre. This Cinderella isn’t really one of those. While there are resonances of other musical worlds, in particular there are several strains of waltz that appear in the ballroom scene, the focus of the score is upon compiling an integrated score that both is a backdrop and a regulator of what happens on stage. The Russian flavour is quite prominent, certainly in the heady mix of streetfair music that explores the same tradition harvested by Stravinsky in Petrouchka. But there are also quite a few audio references to Russian folk instruments such as the balalaika and the dulcimer, digital software which can be heard as part of the orchestral texture. Indeed I did ask whether anyone in the orchestra could play the balalaika. The disappointing answer was that it was much too risky - what happens if they went off sick? But the harpist suggested that she could do a fair balalaika on the harp, and so at perhaps the most delicate moment of the entire score, an ethereal tremolando signals the start of Cinderella’s Ballroom solo. One thing I did borrow, but only from myself; the opening distant humming theme, beautifully sung by actor/dancer Heidi Hall, was taken from a work I wrote while in Rome thirty years ago. It was a setting of Taleisin, a Welsh bardic poet from the dark ages; I felt that its unusual antique melody could be symbolic of ancient mystery, emblematic not only of Cinderella’s mother, but also of a pre-literate past wherein lies the origins of the Cinderella myth.

What are your highlights or favourite pieces of the score?

I don’t really do favourites! But one of the things that attracted me most in Nixon’s new Cinderella synopsis was the emphasis it placed upon magic. It was an invitation to be as inventive as I could, while retaining a fundamental simplicity, and this I found stimulating. Interesting combinations of woodwind, pizzicato strings and exotic ringing percussion could create its soundworld, coupled to the sound of the harp, and two lonely chords on the piano. An encounter with the theories of anthropology giant, Professor Chris Knight, concerning the interpretation of fairy-tales underscores the ballet. Knight speaks of how in fairy tales a world of enchantment is entered, where reality is suspended, which transforms the protagonist unlocking demons and ultimately empowering her for ever. Here in Nixon’s ballet the agent of this magical transformation is the enigmatic magician. At his entry, the music jumps up a semitone, ending the first act in the wrong key. Gradually, as the magic begins to work, the music climbs through all the tonalities until it finally reaches the key of the opening, only an octave higher. Cinderella has found her lost happiness and won a Prince to spend the rest of her days with.