Fairy-Tale Skirmish


Cinderella has danced at many balls in many ballets. I never thought I’d see the fairy tale revamped as a scrimmage in which the stepsisters barrel and stumble their way through a feckless defense, whose players fall back, ignore them, or try to get on with their dancing. In James Kudelka’s Cinderella, as newly staged for ABT, these sisters—played to the comic hilt by Carmen Corella (vain and a bit naughty) and Erica Cornejo (nearsighted and reckless)—overrun a ballet that already needs a whistle-blowing coach to sort things out.

Kudelka choreographed the work in 2004, his last year as the National Ballet of Canada’s artistic director (he’s now its resident choreographer). Although his three previous contributions to ABT’s repertory have been non-narrative, he’s made other versions of well-known stories, such as The Contract, his bizarre take on “The Pied Piper” shown at BAM last year. His Cinderella (like Frederick Ashton’s great one) is set to the turbulent score that Sergei Prokofiev composed during World War II but laid during the years after World War I (David Boechler designed the set and the stunning Art Deco costumes). The Fairy Godmother (Susan Jones) stalks in, a dowager with pearls and a cane. In Kudelka’s scenario, the Prince is an updated romantic-era hero. He’s tired of fashionable, empty-headed snobs. He and Cinderella won’t travel to Biarritz for a honeymoon. Sitting with her by her family’s hearth, for some reason now in the garden, is all he asks of life. Best not to wonder how he could instantly accept as his simple kind of girl one who enters the palace ball via a glowing suspended pumpkin, wearing furs with aplomb.

The ballet has many charming or comically adroit moments. The pas de deux at the ball has a long buildup during which the Prince and Cinderella (I saw Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent) just stroll and converse a bit in a Fred-and-Ginger way. When the Prince first puts his hands on Cinderella’s waist to lift her, the moment not only elicits a little gasp from her, it appears to trigger the music’s sudden swell, and from then on he swirls the fragile Kent into an unbroken flow of startling embraces. Pretty, contrasting solos for four garden elements (Blossom, Petal, Moss, and Twig) highlight Misty Copeland, Maria Riccetto, Stella Abrera, and Veronika Part. Cinderella, who sometimes seems developmentally arrested, copies them gleefully on the sidelines. Pumpkin-headed men in tailcoats form a nimble clock to give Cinderella the midnight warning. The search for the foot the glittery slipper (a pointe shoe) will fit sends Gomes—a warm and noble prince and a dazzling dancer—and his four friends (Jared Matthews, Jesus Pastor, Sascha Radetsky, and Gennadi Saveliev) on leaping, spinning forays through various climes. Their encounters with a Nordic skier, a Spanish señorita, a Dutch skater propelled by a friend in clogs, a tittering geisha, and others are witty and nicely timed; some develop, others function as one-liners.

Kudelka often fails to organize his ruckus to clarify the drama. It’s clear that he wants to blend dancing and humanizing details, but sometimes the latter obscure the former. I love how, when the sisters have spilled Cinderella’s water bucket and swamped her mop, Kent (a fine actress) gamely uses the skirt of her ragged dress to swab the floor. But why does Kudelka so often rivet our eyes on Cornejo’s business with her spectacles (delightful as it is) to the detriment of the good-looking ensemble dancing he has devised? What’s the point of having Cinderella attack the cupboards with an attention-grabbing long-handled duster, and Stepmom (Martine van Hamel, doing nobly in the one-note role of a lush) scale them to get her gin, seconds before the royal entourage arrives with the slipper, and the sisters and their hapless beaux (Isaac Stappas and Craig Salstein) gear up for the contest?

Michel Fokine knew how to choreograph hubbub, as his Petrouchka demonstrates. He meant us to view the crowd celebrating the Shrovetide Fair in 1830s Saint Petersburg as a colorful bustle of characters; it was up to us to look at what caught our attention. During Gary Chryst’s finely coached revival for ABT, I found myself following for the first time the little scenario enacted by the bearded merchant on the balcony (Victor Barbee), the two sexy gypsy girls beside him, and some interested men below. The merchandise being hawked? The women. In the meantime, the Square is thronged with revelers of all classes.

When Fokine wanted to move his plot, however, he knew just how to get the onstage crowd, and us, to see what he wanted us to see: In Scene 1, it’s the Charlatan (Kirk Peterson) displaying his three remarkable life-sized puppets: Petrouchka, the Moor, and the Ballerina they both desire. In the final scene, when the puppets break loose—the Moor chasing the unlucky Petrouchka with scimitar raised—we become aware of them as the crowd does, cued first by a climate change in Stravinsky’s vivid score.

In the performance I saw, E. Cornejo and Roman Zhurbin were excellent as the insouciant doll-stiff Ballerina and the Moor who thinks she may be just as good to eat as to cuddle. As Petrouchka, Radetsky understands the pathos of the puppet’s role but not yet the rag-doll helplessness that’s apparent even in still photos of the role’s creator, Vaslav Nijinsky.

ABT’s all-Stravinsky program is a rewarding one. The scores—Petrouchka, Apollo, and Jeu de Cartes—span three decades. Stravinsky, not yet 30, wrote Petrouchka in 1911, during the early years of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Apollon Musagéte for the 24-year old George Balanchine in 1928, during the company’s final years. He composed Jeu de Cartes for Balanchine too, in 1937. That ballet, Card Game, has disappeared; what ABT is recycling is the version John Cranko created for the Stuttgart ballet in 1965.

I can understand why Balanchine at some point cut the opening sequence of Apollo. As a mature choreographer, he found it OK to affirm how his creative surrogate auditioned three muses and gave Terpsichore, muse of dance and song, pride of place. It was evidently another matter to show Apollo as a bawling, swaddled infant; the two pert nymph attendants (cut in New York City Ballet’s version) actually have to teach him to play his symbolic lyre. In ABT’s “original” version, the birth pangs strike me as a little odd. On a high platform, the seated Leto not only spreads her legs, she appears to stab herself in the abdomen instead of clutching it in pain. But the presence of the platform makes possible the original ending with Apollo confidently leading up its stairs the three sweetly ministering muses (Tired? Here, lay your head on our hands) who’ve groomed him for godhood.

Maxim Beloserkovsky’s Apollo impressed me. He looks technically assured, vigorous, eager, and as if he’s given some thought to impetus and the way he might shade repetitions of a step. At the performance I saw, before picking up a muse to swing on each arm, he registered a lusty hint of “Here we go!”—as much to himself as to them. His Terpsichore that night, Irina Dvorovenko, danced clearly and brightly as usual, but—also as usual—with more consciousness of visual effect than of the shape and thrust of phrases.

Two things hit me about Cranko’s Jeu de Cartes, which I haven’t seen since the Joffrey mounted a production. One: It’s very British. The Joker suddenly appears in drag like a pantomime dame, and in several scenes, guys stand around being droll, making stiff “After you, Alphonse” gestures like music-hall dimwits and popping into jumps as they play pattycake with one another Two: The ballet makes more sense if you’re a card player, or have read the program note carefully. When the prop cards, as big as screens, are trundled on and then off again, they leave a dealt hand of dancers in place. The Queen of Hearts gets along fine with four guys, two 10s and two sevens, even though she’s not happy squashed with them into a centipedal line. But when the Joker vaults in, his high value makes the Queen no longer necessary. She exits with a mournful, silent “Drat!” and the Joker lords it over the lower-ranking guys.

He gets his comeuppance in the second deal. Five pompous marching male hearts constitute a straight flush. Who needs him? They shove and drag him, and finally sling him away. Then they indulge in very snappy show off solos. The third deal features a sprightly female Two of Diamonds, scorned by some snooty high-ranking Spades of both genders. The Joker enters in drag as the Queen of Spades, seeing his chance to be part of a Royal Flush.

This is all pleasantly silly, more intrepid in terms of comic behavior than dancing. The night I went, the superb, soon-to-retire Julio Bocca revelled outrageously and deliciously as the Joker; Carmen Corella, a talented comedian, frumped and flirted engagingly as the Queen of Hearts; and Xiomara Reyes—although technically a bit sloppy—danced vivaciously as the low card with big ambitions. That last phrase sort of sums up the ballet too.