Most story ballets are full of fusty convention - like the little teams of dancers in ethnic garb who scamper out and do different ''national'' dances for the Prince. Then there are the frolicking peasants in the countryside and the bewigged aristocrats in the ballroom.
Usually, you suffer through all this while waiting for the good stuff. That's when the Prince himself does barrel turns around the stage and splits in midair, and his partner, the swan, Sleeping Beauty, Juliet, or Cinderella, spins up to him and swoons into his arms as if someone had just thrown him a bolt of satin.
But as I watched the American Ballet Theatre's (ABT) ''Cinderella'' in Boston recently, I found myself waiting eagerly for Patrick Bissel to finish his flash dancing (which, admittedly, he did with suave accomplishment, his big frame seeming to stroke the air as he launched himself and orbited the stage) so I could see more crowd scenes. These were, by turns, telling, hilarious, and chilling.
They were actually too good. All the excitement in this ballet was at the periphery; the solos and duets were not commanding enough to hold the attention.
Although this Cinderella (choreographed by Peter Anastos and Mikhail Baryshnikov) is just as jewel-studded and fantastic as any other - with Cinderella's friend the dancing cat more than making up for the lack of pumpkin coach - there are moments when a thoroughly modern sensibility takes over and seems to shake you out of your suspension of disbelief.
There are even jokes about story ballets. When the Prince's four soldiers do their dance, the first three soldiers in succession whipped off flashy pirouettes. But the fourth just makes a whirling motion with his finger, as if to say, ''You know what that turn looks like by now, don't you?''
And just like real formal dances, the ball is stuffy, snob-infested, and intimidating.
The Prince fits in, but Cinderella doesn't. You know about his social standing from the moment he enters. After he has executed some perfect turns for the courtiers, who have, incidentally, been bowing in the wrong direction and are craning to see him, he calmly pulls his cuffs down. This gesture puts him in context. You know he's not just an eager young nobleman. He's used to this milieu and looks at it with a slightly jaded eye.
Cinderella, on the other hand, zooms around the stage twice in one long, dizzy phrase. The Prokofiev music doesn't stop for breath, and she doesn't, either. Magali Messac as Cinderella places her points in just the right place as she whirls around, and her rather manic speed gives her a look of desperate accuracy, as if she were rock climbing and one wrong toehold would mean disaster.
She's right to be so frenzied; social climbing is even harder than rock climbing. And the courtiers she finds herself among form a glacial surface, dancing their quadrilles with glassy, collected elegance.
When Cinderella dances with the Prince, they are not alone, but surrounded by the other dancers. You / mo/ple through a rigid framework of posturing snobs, dressed in rich, heavy umbers and purples. This is not a fairy tale, but a story about a social scene so rigid that you have to have a fairy godmother to make any headway at all.
The search with the slipper is also shown to be not quite do romantic as it sounds. The Prince holds up the slipper at the scene's beginning, and after all sorts of mishaps with all the wrong aspirants - including one young lady who tries to insert her foot in the slipper while he is holding it higher than her head - there he is at the end of the scene, still holding the slipper. The choreographers seem to be presenting this as a particularly tedious shopping trip.
The problem with the ballet is that all these fascinating details and narrative touches are digressions which pull the focus away from the romance itself. Magali Messac and Patrick Bissel are both superb dancers, but they only have one really stunning pas de deux to do. When they have just fallen in love, he and Miss Messac zip across the ballroom together. She holds his shoulder as if this were an ordinary waltz, then leaps up, throws both arms in the air, twirls, and comes down with her hand on his shoulder again. Messac's lovely arms float through the changes as softly as petals. She moves with him but seems independent of him, as if dancing with him were making her leap for joy.
But this ballet is like a first novel. There's too much in it.So much of it is good that it's frustrating to see all the clever bits jostling one another. It needs editing. That is still going on, so as ABT streaks around the United States on this dazzling tour, ''Cinderella'' will probably be changing before its New York premiere.
For those who like their ballets in gem form, there's Twyla Tharp's ''Sinatra Suite,'' a romance that is both smoldering and satyrical, danced by Elaine Kudo and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
ABT will be at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, Feb. 21-March 4; Shriners' Auditorium, Los Angeles, March 6-8; Northrup Auditorium, Minneapolis, March 27-April 1; Masonic Temple Auditorium, Detroit, April 3-8; Metropolitan Opera House, New York, April 24-June 16.