Disney didn’t Invent Cinderella. Her Story is at Least 2,000 Years old

Issue 48: 15/12/2023

About the Fairy Tale

Cinderella is the most universally loved of all fairy tales. More than 1500 versions of the Cinderella story are estimated to exist worldwide. The earliest-known version is from China in the ninth century: Yu Yang Ts Tsu, the young heroine’s name is Yeh-shen. Versions of this story have also been found in the folklore of Indonesia, among the tribes of South Africa and the mountains of South America.

The best-known version, especially in Western cultures, appeared in a collection of tales written in 1697 by a retired French civil servant named Charles Perrault. His “Contes de ma mere l’oye” or “Tales of Mother Goose” brought us not only Cinderella but also Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty in the Wood and Puss in Boots. This collection was later translated into English in 1729.

The story, according to Perrault, concerns a poor, neglected girl who her cruel stepmother and stepsisters force to be their servant. They give her the name Cinderella, meaning “little cinder girl.” She is rescued by her Fairy Godmother, who sends her to a ball in a pumpkin magically transformed into a coach. At the ball, she meets a prince who falls in love with her. Fleeing at midnight before the magic ends, she loses one of her tiny glass slippers. With the slipper as his clue, the prince finds Cinderella and marries her.

Although the many versions vary, the essential elements are the same: the youngest daughter who is mistreated by her jealous stepmother and stepsisters or a cruel father; the intervention of a supernatural helper on her behalf; and the reversal of fortune brought about by a prince who falls in love with her and marries her. In other versions, Cinderella is called Cenerentola (Italian), Angkat (Cambodian) and Aschenputtel (German). She is often assisted by her late mother, who appears as a cow or goat. In other versions, she is helped by a fish or a bird. The test of recognition is often a golden or silver slipper, golden hair, or a ring. Perrault’s version was the first to introduce the Fairy Godmother and the glass slipper.

This lucky folk heroine who exemplifies the concept of inner beauty and purity of spirit overcoming loneliness, cruel mistreatment, and vanity has a universal appeal that has lasted centuries. Whether accustomed to Charles Perrault’s original fairytale, the Brothers Grimm’s darker cautionary tale (no fairy godmothers there!), Disney’s 1950 cartoon, the 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, or the recent Kenneth Brannagh movie, most are familiar with this classical fairytale. Cinderella has inspired pantomimes, operas, ballets, musicals, films, and television programs.

Cinderella as a Ballet

The ballet version of Cinderella has been reimagined countless times over the years. The one commonality that most productions have is the exquisite music of Sergei Prokofiev, which was composed in the early 1940s to complement Nikolai Volkov’s libretto (storyline). The premiere of Prokofiev’s composition was in 1945 at the Bolshoi Theatre with choreography by Rostislav Zakharov. Other notable interpretations include Rudolf Nureyev’s for the Paris Opera Ballet (1986) and Septime Webre’s for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (2003), 

Prokofiev began his score in 1941 but did not complete it until 1944 due to World War II and his work on the opera War and Peace. He writes of Cinderella, “… I see Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us…What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path and finally, the dream fulfilled.” 

There were earlier versions of the ballet and earlier scores created based on the plot, including an 1893 premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre featuring choreography by Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov, supervised by Marius Petipa (Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker), with music by Baron Boris Fitinhoff-Schell. Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani danced the lead role of Cinderella, and this version marks the first ballet performance in Russia to include the execution of 32 consecutive fouettées. A few years after Prokofiev’s premiere, Frederick Ashton choreographed his version of the score for the Sadlers’ Wells Ballet, adding a comedic layer often associated with the role of the step-sisters. Ashton premiered his ballet in 1948 at the Royal Opera House, with Ashton dancing the role of one of the two step-sisters. Many companies, including Joffrey Ballet Boston and American Ballet Theatre, have performed Ashton’s Cinderella. Beyond the music, a common trait in different productions is the emphasis on visual elements, including impressive sets, lavish costumes, and many special effects. In company program bills, the ballet’s production value is often described as “ornate,” “magical,” and “innovative.”

Madame Villa’s Cinderella for FIS – 60th Anniversary

Madame Venus Villa has reinvented Cinderella for FIS, preserving classical elements but adding some amusing modern plot twists. We are fortunate to welcome two young professional classical dancers from Europe as guest artists: Laura Viola, who will be dancing as the ghost of Cinderella’s birth mother and Giorgio Guerrieri, in the role of the prince, who will be partnering Cinderella in the beautiful pas de deux in the ball scene. Also, Hong Kong’s famous drag queen, `La Chiquitta’, will delight us with her appearance as Cinderella’s catty stepmother, honouring the tradition of British Christmas Pantomime. Approximately 50% of the cast and 100% of the crew are FIS students. Bianca Rowley (FIS International Y11) will dance the lead role of Cinderella in the evening performance and the Fairy Godmother in the matinee. In both performances, Coco Berge-Kawano (FIS International Y9) will dance the role of one of the `Ugly’ Step-Sisters. The students have trained hard, giving up many hours to support the school’s 60th-anniversary celebrations. Cinderella at FIS will be a breathtaking event. Tickets are still available for the evening performance. 

Veronica Rowley
English Literature and Drama Teacher