Cinderella: a tale best told at a time of war

Cinderella’s story can take place in any country and at any time, but in ballet terms, the tale will always be linked to the Second World War.

Prokofiev’s score was written during the war, the Bolshoi premiered the ballet just after the war, and with the lifting of wartime restrictions in Britain, the Royal Ballet was able to stage Frederick Ashton’s full length production in 1948.

Matthew Bourne set his Cinderella for Adventures in Motion Pictures in the London Blitz, referring in particular to the bombing of the Café de Paris in March 1941.

Michel Fokine’s one act Cendrillon, a ballet ‘en trois tableaux’, premiered in 1938 and as far as I know, it was not performed anywhere after 1940.

Fokine’s ballet was outshone by the overwhelming success of Ashton’s ballet, one that followed Fokine’s concept of having the Ugly Sisters danced by men in drag.

Cendrillon made its first appearance on 19 July 1938 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. With a score by Frederic d’Erlanger and designs by Natalia Goncharova its cast included Tatiana Riabouchinska as Cinderella, David Lichine as the Prince, Tamara Grigorieva as the Good Fairy, Marian Ladre and Algeranoff as the Ugly Sisters and Raisse Kouznetsova as the Cat, the last a role introduced by Fokine.

The Australian premiere of Cendrillon followed soon after, when, on 28 September 1938, in Melbourne, the Covent Garden Russian Ballet reprised their London performances with one change, Paul Petroff was the Prince.

The Original Ballet Russe brought the ballet back to Australia for the tour of 1939/40 when the reception was at best, lukewarm.

An anonymous critic writing in The Sydney Morning Herald (3 February 1940), dismissed it as “a shallow balletic pantomime”.

The Original Ballet Russe departed Australia for the United States, taking Cendrillon in its repertoire. It was performed only two more times, in Los Angeles in October 1940 and New York in November 1940.

A 17-minute film showing excerpts was made in the United States.

Cendrillon’s collaborators, Fokine and d’Erlanger both died during the Second World War, Fokine in 1942 and d’Erlanger a year later.

The last Australian performance of Cendrillon took place during the Original Ballet Russe’s season in Brisbane from 26 June to 11 July, 1940.

For the dancers, these were the worst of times.

Among the 72 dancers and accompanying people on the 1939/40 Australian tour of the company were many Russians and Poles, and 33 were travelling on Nansen passports, issued in Europe for stateless persons.

The dancers faced a very uncertain future and must have worried a great deal about their families and friends.

During the month of June 1940, Paris was occupied by German troops, the first transit of prisoners arrived at Auschwitz concentration camp, the Soviet Union invaded the Baltic States and Winston Churchill warned that “the battle of Britain is about to begin”.

The dancers did not even have the security of complete acceptance in Australia, if a strange article in The Sydney Morning Herald (20 July, 1940) can be believed.

The author of the article that was more of an editorial than a news item (there was no byline) wrote: “Now that the Empire is fighting for its existence, many people in Sydney seem to regard the ballet as a frivolous form of entertainment.

“They imagine that they are being ‘patriotic’ by refusing to darken the doors of the Theatre Royal. The presence of numerous foreigners
in the ballet’s personnel strengthens this prejudice.

“For a prejudice it is. Far from being frivolous the ballet is one of the greatest civilising and cultural influences of the present period.

“While war is unleashing the powers of destruction, Colonel de Basil and his company represent the great constructive forces of art”.

The article could not have been more publicity driven than if it was written by de Basil himself.

Perhaps it was. In the same week as the article appeared, de Basil suddently left Australia, for New York. The reason, as reported by the press, was the death of his New York representative, but the Colonel, was also working on a survival strategy, making preparations to bring the Original Ballet Russe to the United States.