When a princess runs the ball and rescues a timid boy

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When a princess runs the ball and rescues a timid boy
Marge Kendrick as Princess Louise gestures toward Evan Loudon’s Cinders during a rehearsal of the Scottish Ballet production “Cinders!” in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 15, 2023. For the Scottish Ballet production of Cinderella, some performances flip the traditional gender roles. (Emily Macinnes/The New York Times)

by Laura Cappelle

GLASGOW.- At a recent rehearsal of the Scottish Ballet, Marge Hendrick did something unusual for a ballerina. Running through a scene from “Cinders!,” a gender-bending new version of “Cinderella,” she grazed her partner Evan Loudon’s chin reassuringly as he looked down, unsure of himself. Then, Hendrick extended a hand to Loudon and paraded him around her, welcoming him to her world.

It was an exact reversal of the gender dynamic that has long dominated ballet’s repertoire. Typically men are cast as confident, chivalrous princes, there to provide support to their female partners. “You lead the woman, you present the woman,” Loudon said in an interview after the rehearsal. “It’s the job in traditional ballets.”

In this production, with choreography by Christopher Hampson, the artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, Loudon plays Cinders, a male version of Cinderella. And Hendrick is Princess Louise, the royal character who comes to his rescue.

For Loudon, letting her take the lead has meant fighting his ballet instincts daily. “I don’t really know how to hold myself anymore, where to put my hand with her,” he said with a laugh.

Hampson’s “Cinders!,” which has its premiere in Glasgow next weekend before a British tour, is pushing at ballet’s calcified gender roles. While gender flips are hardly new in film and theater, ballet has been slower to experiment with them. In recent years, some choreographers, like Justin Peck, have created gender-neutral roles, mostly in shorter, abstract works. In 2022, Benjamin Millepied mixed and matched genders in a new version of “Romeo and Juliet” for his contemporary company L.A. Dance Project, casting the star-crossed lovers as two women, two men or a straight pair, depending on the night.

Yet gender-swapping the roles of an existing fairy-tale ballet, with its set narrative structure and traditional pas de deux, is a different ballgame. When Hampson first explained the concept to Daria Klimentova, a former star of English National Ballet who coaches the lead roles in “Cinders!,” she thought he was joking, she said in an interview in Glasgow. Bruno Micchiardi, the first-cast Cinders, recalled the dancers’ reaction: “We were all kind of like: ‘OK. How does that work?’”

That’s because unlike theater, when it comes to gender fluidity, ballet has to contend with its binary technique. Whether a man or a woman says “I love you,” “it’s the same three words,” Hampson said. “But we’re working with codified movement.” Ballet dancers specialize early on: Girls learn to dance on pointe, and boys develop the skills needed to lift their partners. A new generation of nonbinary performers has started to question this strict divide in recent years, but it remains deeply ingrained in the art form.

“Cinders!” is not the first time Hampson has challenged the status quo in ballet. At Scottish Ballet, where he has been the artistic director since 2012, he has spoken up about the abusive environment ballet has often fostered, as well as the outdated stereotypes in its repertoire. Last year, he was among the first ballet leaders to hire intimacy directors in order to look after the physical and emotional well-being of performers.

The idea of a gender-flipped “Cinders!” first came to him in a queer bookshop in Edinburgh. He happened upon “Gender Swapped Fairy Tales” (2020) by Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett, in which the gender of every character in classic tales is changed, including “Cinderella.”

“They’ve not been rewritten,” Hampson said. “It’s just the initial text with a stepfather instead of a stepmother, a fairy godfather and so on. What fascinated me was that the stories just worked.

“I wish that I’d had that in front of me when I was growing up.”

Hampson had already choreographed several versions of “Cinderella,” but said he thought the ballet needed “freshening,” especially the plot. In this version, Cinders’ parents both die when their shop goes up in flames. There is no stepmother: Instead, Cinders is left with the authoritarian new owner of the shop, Mrs. Thorne, and her children.

The gender change helped to highlight the original’s stereotypes. “You start to realize that most male characters in fairy tales are on a quest and an adventure,” Hampson said, “whereas many female characters require an answer from the world. They need to be helped and completed by a male protagonist.”

Bethany Kingsley-Garner, a veteran Scottish Ballet principal who created the role of Cinderella in Hampson’s previous production for the company, was ecstatic at the change. “I couldn’t wait to hold the ball on my own,” she said. In this version, Princess Louise now gets the kind of ballet entrance usually reserved for men: a flamboyant Sergei Prokofiev fanfare heralding her arrival, followed by high-flying jumps.

Kingsley-Garner, who will retire after “Cinders!,” added, “It was about time that I got a chance to lead in that way.”

Similarly, the role of Cinders allows for a level of vulnerability that male ballet dancers rarely learn to portray onstage. “I get to show loads of different emotions — I get to be timid!” said Micchiardi, the first-cast Cinders. “The dream would be that in 20 years, when boys are doing a solo in school, they’ll want to do male Cinders.”

Yet for audiences, the changes will be much milder than a “gender reversal” might lead many to expect. Hampson — who said he had changed about 70% of the choreography from his previous production — primarily wanted to shift the story, rather than to challenge the technical divide between men and women. His male Cinders isn’t on pointe and the Princess isn’t asked to lift her partner.

“Is a woman doing a tour en l’air going to add to the story?” he asked, referring to a step typically reserved for men.

Over the run of “Cinders!,” male Cinders/Princess and female Cinders/Prince pairings are set to alternate, with some dancers playing two roles: Jessica Fyfe, the first-cast Princess, will also perform the title role in later performances. And when she switches to Cinders, she won’t be performing all-new choreography. The pas de deux and some variations remain the same regardless of the gender combination. “It’s been quite mind-bending sometimes,” Fyfe said with a smile.

As the Princess, Fyfe is swept by her male partner into the same lifts and turns as female Cinders — yet she has to bring different intentions to them, to give the sense that she is leading. In a rehearsal, Hampson spent time finessing a section in which Fyfe drapes an arm over her Cinders’ shoulder, while he spins her around in an arabesque.

“We had this idea that the promenade came from her, pushing from the arm over the shoulder,” Hampson told the dancers. “It’s gone back to being reactive.” Fyfe and Micchiardi repeated the sequence several times, trying to hide the fact that Micchiardi does a lot of the physical leading.

“I’m trying to get to the point where the Princess instigates movements, where she drives the floor pattern,” Hampson said later in his office. “It’s really challenging me as a choreographer. I hadn’t fully realized that there are some tropes that I go to that I’ve not questioned enough.”

Micchiardi, who worked closely with Hampson and Fyfe to create the new-look lead roles, said they were all still figuring it out. “Maybe in 20 years’ time, pas de deux will be different, with the woman being more active,” he said.

As for the glass slipper, the female Cinders leave a pointe shoe behind as they flee the ball, and the male Cinders will leave a soft ballet shoe adorned with jewels. The change had a domino effect on casting: In most versions, the Prince comes to Cinderella’s home only so the stepsisters can try the “slipper” on. To solve that narrative roadblock, Hampson added a stepbrother, Tarquin, who tries on Cinders’ jeweled shoe.

Tarquin may not win the Princess’ hand, but he has his own happy ending: a same-sex romance with a duke from her court. Harvey Littlefield, 23, who identifies as gender queer, said being cast as the duke was the first time they have been able to play a gay character in ballet; there are next to none in the repertoire. “It feels like I can put myself fully into it,” they said. “It was quite a hopeful moment.”

Like Littlefield, Fyfe and Micchiardi said they were inspired by the creation process. “A lot of ballet companies are going down a more contemporary route to create new works, but this is very classical,” Fyfe said of “Cinders!” “And I think that’s one of the hardest things to do at the moment — to keep that classicism, but bring it into this century.”

“It makes you fall in love with the art form all over again,” Micchiardi said.

And Hampson is now certain that other classics can be given a similar treatment. “It’s doable for every ballet,” he said. “I can’t see why it wouldn’t be, because we’re telling the human condition story. I just know as a little boy, I would have loved to have seen this show.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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