The rags-to-riches yarn does not offer much in the way of a story, so, inspired by Prokofiev's score, Ashton opts for a range of styles, proving himself just as at home with knockabout comedy (the Ugly Sisters) as with haute classicism. Ashton himself danced one of the Ugly Sisters in the original production, the sad one as opposed to the obese Madam Butterfly lookalike originally clomped in clogs by Robert Helpmann. Ballet's most comic pair ham it up as they prepare for the ball, hats and powder puffs flying. They make idiots of themselves on the Big Night, and when they return home squeeze hippo feet into a tiny glass slipper. Oliver Symons and Derek Rencher get it right; never too extravagant, they go straight for the laughs.
Ashton borrows from the noble classicism of 19th-century Russian ballet to create deft sequences of airy, lyrical dance with clean lines, all his later hallmarks. The Fairy Godmother's (Nicola Tranah's) solo at the hearth is a breath of paradise; lovely too are Karen Paisey's jaunty Fairy Spring, Genesia Rosato's fruity Fairy Summer, Nicola Roberts's whirling Fairy Autumn and Darcey Bussell's heavily sparkling Fairy Winter. The Season Fairies are a shrewd Ashton invention: they provide four solos, each requiring a scene change, and a later sequence for eight dancers when they link up with four of the Prince's friends at the ball; a clever device, beautifully performed.
Ashton's sense of symmetry surfaces in Cinderella's solos, superbly danced by Viviana Durante. In Act I, dressed in grey with an Elizabeth II headscarf, she dances with a grass broom, a lonely figure making believe she is with a handsome partner. After the ball, she dances with the broom again, but this time her fantasy man is real. Or is he? Was the ball a dream? Ashton makes it dream-like, with Cinderella's entrance one of ballet's high points.
After an Ugly Sister has tumbled down the stairs and the Jester (a wonderful Tetsuya Kumakawa with elastic legs that bounce him halfway to the roof) has performed for the guests, Cinderella appears at the top of the staircase. She stands very still in a long, glittering silver cloak with a high-winged collar, more Snow Queen than putative princess. When she removes her cloak to dance with Bruce Sansom - a handsome prince in anyone's book - the pair are the ultimate Fairytale Couple. It is a tribute to Durante and Sansom that even the most cynical believe in them.
The corps de ballet are a galaxy of silver stars, who at the end of the ball form an arc of light at the top of the stairs, neatly foreshadowing the ending when the Girl gets her Prince, and the couple sail through parallel arches into the starry night. Don't miss it.
There is no shortage of Nutcrackers this season. English National Ballet are celebrating 100 years of the Tchaikovsky ballet at the Festival Hall, while on Monday night on BBC 2, the Mark Morris Dance Group performed its bell-bottomed version called The Hard Nut. The ENB one is by Ben Stevenson, a Briton who is artistic director of Houston Ballet, a dazzling production that enjoyed tremendous popular acclaim when it was first performed last year.
Stevenson injects unusual vitality into the Christmas party at the Stahlbaum's: a girl stamps on a boy's foot, two boys dart about with an Indian headdress, a lad drinks wine from a goblet and is boxed on the ear by his mother. The cast has fun with it, but not as much fun as the Mark Morris Group, who go to the party to disco-dance, women in short sequinned dresses bumping hips with men in flares and smart velvet jackets. Disco-dancing to Tchaikovsky? Far out. Only the genius of Morris pulls it off.
Stevenson's Land of Snow is a kingdom of gleaming birches and falling snowflakes, a heaven of whipping turns by a lustrous corps. Morris's Land of Snow is a DIY affair: men and women in silver tutus and tulip caps carpet the bare stage with glitter, which they throw in the air on the trumpet fanfares. Who ever heard of men in tutus? Morris has, and while he's about it, he pops a black woman in the corps, making a nonsense of the traditional argument that black dancers look out of place in an all-white corps.
The exquisite pastel petal costumes turn the ENB's Waltz of the Flowers into a beautiful swirling bouquet of dance, with a graceful grand pas de deux by Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur as the yellow ribbon. But the man of the match is Mark Morris, whose waltzing flowers each perform a turning circle that link up to form a giant, heady, spinning ring. This is one of the dance's most ingenious moments - so simple but so striking.
'Cinderella', Covent Garden (071-240 1066), tomorrow, Thurs, Fri, and 11 Jan. 'The Nutcracker', Festival Hall (071-928 8800), to 16 Jan.
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