Thursday, June 12, 2014

Cinderella, Take 3

Photo: Gene Schiavone
Eight years ago, I saw Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in the ABT premiere of James Kudelka's Cinderella from 2004. Last Tuesday, I saw Kent and Gomes reprise the roles of Cinderella and the Prince, only in Frederick Ashton's ballet from 1948, using Sergei Prokofiev's score, that originated at London's Royal Ballet and was given its ABT premiere last Monday. (Remarkably, Kent also danced the lead role in Ben Stevenson's version in 1996.) 

This version, while not modern, fits ABT's strengths better than the Kudelka, which contains some memorable stage pictures and dynamics—the Prince's urgent dash around the planet—but falls flat in comparison. Kudelka's is like a cartoon tree—a puffy circle atop a cylinder—versus a lushly-leaved, knarled-trunk, detailed etching by Dürer. Wendy Ellis Somes and Malin Thoors directed this production.

There is a tendency in contemporary ballet to push extremes—extend a leg past vertically, push an arabesque into a split, break a sculptured, curved line with a flexed extremity. Ashton (1904—88) often did the opposite. He dimished the exhibitionist tendency, lowering an attitude to an elegant height, holding the foot in coupé derrière, or arranging the arms in crisp Vs held high or low. That's not to say that he pared the choreography to simple forms. As the variations by the four fairies demonstrate, he created knotty phrases that challenge even the most skilled practitioners, in this case Stella Abrera, Sarah Lane, Misty Copeland, Isabella Boylston, and April Giangeruso. In some instances, he detached the music's support of the movement; the two cross paths and sometimes interweave, rather than swimming parallel.

The ballet's most memorable waltz section begs for swooping, dipping actions that emphasize gravity. But Ashton gave the corps' women slashing arms and crisply hit spots, an advancing army that marked the transition from reality to fantasy. Craig Salstein, as the Jester, seemed slightly overwound, pushing beyond the 110% he usually gives. His expressive face was painted clown white, which may have led him to try to use his body more. Nonetheless, he is reliably one of the most enthusiastic and entertaining performers in the company.   

The hysterics of the stepsisters (Kenneth Easter and Thomas Forster, in drag) offset the generally tasteful atmosphere set by Cinderella's passages. The tradition of men playing the sisters may be coveted in Britain, but it has less appeal to me. And yet, if women were given the slapstick pranks of this duo, it would surely count as misogynistic. Does it still? Hmm.

The set, by David Walker (who also designed the costumes), while column-and-candles classical in concept, recalls in practice the Japanese sliding screen form of theater, dogougaeshi. As each fairy makes an entrance accompanied by a pair of children, the portal in which she stands is revealed by a raised scrim. It shows off the great depth of the Met's stage. In Act 3, the ballroom appears to recede deeply, pushing us to focus on the couple, as if at the center of a Fabergé egg. In the final scene, a shower of glittering confetti sparkles hopefully around the couple, already on the neighboring hill.

Kent, after so many Cinderellas, exudes the essential purity and inner glow to be able to transform from peasant to princess. She enters the ballroom by walking on point, in her borrowed tutu and a sail-sized chiffon train held aloft by footmen, mincing ever so slowly down the steps. (I admit to worrying about the potential consequences of those steps, both here and when Gomes pressed her overhead and descended the staircase. He was fine, of course.) Gomes, clad in all white throughout, black hair gathered in a neat ponytail, is the consummate prince, drawing the eye even while darting through the crowd. He so fully inhabits his roles that even the sometimes awkward mechanics of partnering seem natural. His ability to exude both bravura and naturalness are remarkable, a testament to both physical training and artistry.

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