From Caricature to Character: Evolving the Role of Cinderella’s Stepsisters and Gender Representation in the Arts - Boston Ballet

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From Caricature to Character

Evolving the Role of Cinderella’s Stepsisters and Gender Representation in the Arts

Boston Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella

Photo by Liza Voll

Learn how the role of the Stepsisters in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella fits into an important conversation about gender representation in ballet.

Tre’Andre Valentine, Executive Director at MTPC

Photo courtesy of MTPC

MG Xiong, Director of Programs at MTPC

Photo courtesy of MTPC

Boston Ballet is partnering with the MASSACHUSETTS TRANSGENDER POLITICAL COALITION (MTPC) to continue to evolve gender portrayals in classical ballet. MTPC works to ensure the wellbeing, safety, and lived equity of all trans, non-binary, and gender expansive community members in Massachusetts. They have been leading training and conversations to help build Boston Ballet’s collective literacy on respectful and inclusive gender representation in the arts and update the portrayal of the stepsisters in SIR FREDERICK ASHTON’S CINDERELLA.

“Providing organizations and the people that make them up with the tools and knowledge to create more affirming and inclusive environments for trans and nonbinary people is one of the key pillars of MTPC’s mission,” says Tre’Andre Valentine, Executive Director of MTPC. “We are excited by this opportunity to engage with Boston Ballet to ensure that their work positively represents our community and provides a welcoming and inclusive space for all.”

“Boston Ballet believes dance is for everyone,” says Boston Ballet Executive Director Ming Min Hui. “We are exploring ways to evolve the role of the Stepsisters in Cinderella from ‘caricature’ towards ‘character’. We care deeply about the trans community and welcome this opportunity to engage in an important dialogue on topics of transgender issues, drag history, and gendered performance. Our hope is that audiences and artists can engage with the production with added meaning and context so that we are building literacy in LGBTQIA+ issues and trans rights alongside a celebration of classical dance.”

History of the Stepsisters in Cinderella

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella premiered on December 23, 1948 with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, later to become The Royal Ballet. Ashton originally created the role of Cinderella for famed ballerina Margot Fonteyn, but Moira Shearer performed the opening night because Fonteyn was injured. Historically, the roles of the stepsisters are performed by cisgender male dancers. Ashton himself famously danced as a stepsister with The Royal Ballet.

“For most of the past 100 years of ballet and opera, the most ungrateful siblings in fairy tale history have been played by men in drag,” writes Rebecca Ritzel in THE GLOBE AND MAIL. “In 1948, English choreographer Frederick Ashton played one himself, with Moira Shearer (of Red Shoes fame) as the titular scullery maid. It was a crowd-pleasing gimmick, not necessarily a progressive development, yet Ashton’s choreography became the definitive version set to Prokofiev’s score.”

Through a modern lens, not only does the story of Cinderella have misogynistic plot points written into it, with beauty standards, obedience and domesticity attributed to femininity, but also the caricatures and tropes in cross-casting roles that are already misogynistic compounds with transgender oppression.  

Transmisogyny is defined as the intersection of transphobia, the discrimination and oppression of trans people for their gender expression, and misogyny, the hatred and devaluation of women and femininity. Comedic portrayals of “masculine women” as the ugly and unappealing character or the villain in arts and entertainment deeply impacts trans women and transfeminine people.

“The joke is an old joke. It’s usually ‘Ha ha, look! A man in a dress! They’re not supposed to be in dresses!’ And it sort of bucks up against our old ways of seeing gender and gender roles. It can be, and has been, extremely harmful because that then gives a cue for society sometimes to take trans people as a joke, especially if they aren’t, in society’s eyes, succeeding at presenting in a socially acceptable gendered way,” writes trans performer Angelica Ross in The New York Times

Moving from caricature to character

While Boston Ballet strives to uphold the artistic intentions of its choreographers, we realize we must confront issues such as transphobic gender portrayals. “As we curate the future of ballet, it is important to remember where we came from. I want to preserve choreographic gems while removing problematic themes. It is important to expose dancers and audiences to the academic classical approach, adapted for today’s world,” says Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen. 

“We are so glad to be working closely with the Boston Ballet to address the portrayal of the stepsisters in this production of Cinderella,” says MG Xiong, Director of Programs at MTPC. “Against the backdrop of rising anti-trans rhetoric and discrimination throughout the US, it is important now more than ever for cultural institutions such as the Ballet to ensure that they are uplifting, including, and affirming transgender people, their identities, and their stories.”   

MTPC has been leading conversations with Boston Ballet that focus on the respectful portrayal of gender in the arts. The trainers cover foundational knowledge about gender identity and its portrayal in the arts, especially that of transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive communities. Literacy on these topics is intended to assist Boston Ballet with thoughtful representation of gender identity in ballet and avoid negative tropes, stereotypes, and caricatures.  

“We will gather more audience, staff, and artist feedback on the updated presentation of male stepsisters, and continue to incorporate what we hear in making programmatic choices and evolving repertoire in the classical canon,” says Nissinen. 

Boston Ballet Soloist Lawrence Rines Munro

Photo by Liza Voll

Q&A with Boston Ballet Soloist Lawrence Rines Munro  

Boston Ballet Soloist LAWRENCE RINES MUNRO shares his experience performing the stepsister role in Cinderella for the first time.  

What research have you done to prepare for this role?   

I have watched as much older footage of the production as I could to see how I could take the original choreography and characterizations and funnel it through a more modern lens with today’s sensibilities. 

Have you ever performed this role before?  

I have not and I am super excited! I have performed some character roles in my career but never a central character role. The stepsisters are such a huge part of the production. They are basically a through line from start to finish when it comes to the story.  

Within the constraints of the plot, choreography, costuming, etc., what are some things you’re thinking about to ensure you are not perpetuating any further harm?  

Contrary to some people’s idea of comedy, it is a craft that requires smart and emotionally deep choices when it comes characterization. I want the audience to laugh with us and the absurdity of the stepsisters’ individual personalities, relationship between each other, and their journey from Act 1 to Act 3. I don’t want the audience laughing at the fact that we are male presenting people in feminine costuming choosing to demonstrate harmful tropes for the sake of mindless comedy. I am going to stay away from any “low hanging fruits” when it comes to the comedic choices I make, within the choreography I have been given. 

What has been the most transformative insight that you’ve taken away from the conversations with MTPC and your colleagues?   

I had some idea how much transmisogyny was rooted in comedy in media but not to such a high degree. The MTPC showed us different examples in literature, TV, and movies during our meetings. I had either watched or read most of the examples discussed and did not register it as being harmful. These examples gave me extra insight on how to approach my character of the stepsister.  

How has this experience impacted your perspective on gender representation in ballet?   

Traditionally, classical ballet has extremely strict gender roles, with men and women performing different movements and dancing very different roles. There is certainly room to reevaluate how and what works are presented. With meetings and conversations like we had with the MTPC, the ballet world can let go of some of its rigidity and actively work to become a more inclusive and welcoming place. 

Why is it important that organizations like Boston Ballet and MTPC engage in these conversations?  

In today’s climate, the classical ballet canon can be viewed as racist, sexist, and thoroughly problematic. Boston Ballet regards itself as a ballet company of the future. Having conversations with organizations like the MTPC will keep us telling these sometimes-difficult stories through a contemporary lens and away from perpetrating harmful and difficult themes within the entire organization, not just what we put out on stage.  

What do you hope audiences take away from your performance?  

I just want the audience to have fun, because I sure will be! 


By Boston Ballet Staff in collaboration with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition