The good girl who can't afford a party dress—whereas her mean stepsisters have plenty—but who gets a free makeover and
designer gown for one night on the town, with a fabulous pair of Prada shoes. No doubt, Cinderella is a tale for “ever after.”
46 year-old Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky set Cinderella, his earliest storytelling ballet, somewhere between tradition and
modernist revision. He used to be a dancer at the Bolshoi (whose director he became in 2004) and began reimagining and revamping story telling ballets from the repertoire that
soon made him internationally famous. He has been Artist in Residence at the American Ballet Theater since 2009. Cinderella was done as early as 2002 for the Kirov (now back to its pre-Stalinist name Mariinsky Ballet) and has recently been touring in Europe and the States, accompanied by the Mariinsky Orchestra. The role was created by Diana Vishneva, one of today’s most exquisite ballerinas. I saw Cinderella at Cal Performances with the excellent second cast—Nadeshda Batoeva and Vladimir Shkyarov—, but you can see Vishneva in a 2013 London performance of the entire ballet on YouTube.
It’s always of interest to see the beginnings of a new master. In this first major work, young Ratmansky is still struggling to free
himself from the classical canon and push the envelope toward modern breakout moves and ideas. But what a talent he already shows. The evil stepmother and mean stepsisters start
their antics at the hair dresser’s, with three Figaros cavorting around them with a sense of comedy that made me wonder if Ratmansky had seen Pina Bausch’s 1996
California creation Nur Du-Only You with it’s hilarious hair-do scene. The impressive stepmother, Anastasia Petushkova, displays grotesque staccato point work of steely precision. The trio carries on in outré cabaret-style, twisting their hips and elbows and throwing their legs up like Can Can girls with an expressionist fury.
In the first act, Cinderella is quite up-staged by her in-laws. She gets classical solos that are charming but seem a bit empty and
lacking depth on the bare-bones stage that resembles a New York tenement backyard with fire escapes on each side. Apparently Ratmansky wanted the old tale (already done by
Petipa in Tsarist times) to evoke the Depression Era thirties, in any case a post-aristocratic era. Not much suffering and longing
is conveyed in Cinderella’s dances. Rather, Nadezhda Batoeva presents as a spunky, somewhat bored young girl who loves to
dance around when left behind. Instead of poverty and ashes, she wears a “gamine” outfit in pretty light grey (different from
Vishneva’s costume), the type a dancer would wear today in ballet class.
It’s interesting how this superficial version of the grim fairytale, a “Cinderella-Light,” seems to dominate today’s male
choreographers. Ratmansky’s main rival in classical ballet, British choreographer Wayne McGregor, did the same at San
Francisco Ballet’s revival of the tale, in 2013 (reviewed in these pages**). Is this an attempt to “speak to” young girls in the
audience who are too well fed and spoiled to care about the “rags” as long as there are “riches”?
The fairy godmother appears, a comically bent-down Babushka who needs someone to carry her bag-lady bags. There is some
tenderness between her and Cinderella, but the emotion is watered down by the spirit helpers, the Four Seasons, which are
a staple of earlier Russian versions of the ballet. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter are always a yawn, even with the Punkish wigs
and leotards they sport here. Devoid of magic and therefore meaning, they struggle to be more than an encumbrance for the
tale that needs to get to the ball – if only Prokofiev’s score would let it happen. This score with its dissonant percussions is
certainly danceable but excessively dark and repetitive, hampered by its weak echos of the composer’s previous ballet masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. The score would need to be
drastically shortened to give Cinderella a real chance. Just think of all the other ballet scores, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Nutcracker and the rest (Romeo and Juliet is also a case in point
), to know that story ballet scores are destined to be changed in order to fit a theater, orchestra, company, choreographer, and, perhaps, modern times.
But then we do get to Act II, and are welcomed to a ball choreography that is full of invention, marvelously mocking
tradition (although we are back to the obligatory palace and big chandelier of old). Elegant ladies in long, slender silk gowns
stalk and preen around their cavaliers like arrogant swans, but derail regularly into duck-like movements, penguin marches,
and over-sexed twitches. The funny groupings and line-ups again bring to mind Pina Bausch. (Bausch and the Wuppertal Tanztheater toured in Russia as early as 1993.) Of course
tradition demands that the evil stepmother and stepsisters make a fool of themselves at the ball, but Ratmansky has few
new movement ideas for them. They have become a cartoonish irritant by now and I found myself wishing them off-stage.
When Cinderella alights at the ball, a moment of choreographic brilliance has her stand still in the center of the ballroom and
close her eyes because the sight would be too much for her. She wears a beautifully flowing, simple white dress with a bit of
glimmer–the very picture of innocence among the sophisticates.
One of them also wears white: the prince here seems to be the vedette of a show, the popstar at a party, posing in front of a
mirror and exuding self-congratulatory crowd appeal. Why he would veer toward the simple girl is anyone’s guess, but perhaps
it’s the fashion of wearing white that brings them together. The two of them do stand out in their stark, brilliant whites.
Everyone else is forgotten, and the two dancers, Nadezhda Batoeva and Vladimir Shklyarov, enter their tender first duets.
Cinderella shows her spunk introducing herself by showing off her own dance steps, a delightful choreography of coltish
playfulness with secret sex appeal. She quickly warms up to the prince and Ratmansky gives her gorgeous motions of off
-centered swooning and half-way sinking and falling in his arms. They have a moment of unusual “conversation,” miming with
arms and hands an excited exchange of words. Shklyarov is an elegant dancer and sympathetic partner, and Batoeva grows into
more than a perfect ballerina: she turns into a touching Cinderella, making it believable that the Prince and the entire
court madly run after her at the stroke of midnight, while she zigzags in and out of rooms, racing against time for the exit as the seconds tick away.
The morning after, in Act III, when the whole magical spell has disappeared and only one slipper remains, Ratmansky unfolds
for Cinderella what was missing in Act I— the deeper, soulful levels of yearning. The Prince, meanwhile, goes on the chase for
the matching shoe. With the shoe stuffed in his backpack, clad in a red sweater, he seems a timeless young lad on the quest for
love. His journey crosses one place of tradition, a house of ill repute where the women are not interested in his shoe, and a
surprisingly non-traditional men’s club or bordello (how did this go over with the notoriously homophobic Russian fatherland?)
where the idea of Cinderella’s slipper as a trans-gender icon is hilarious for a moment.
The end follows the Russian storyline: mother and daughters grotesquely try on the slipper until Cinderella, hiding on the
stairs above, drops hers into the melée. The happy ending is another superbly choreographed and danced pas de deux. It
runs up and down the metal stairs that now definitely evoke New York’s West Side Story, with elements of a famous balcony scene thrown in for good measure.
In spite of the clash of traditions throughout the ballet, Ratmansky’s choreographical promise is well in evidence. In
particular the ballroom scenes and the romantic love duets announce the fluid melting of dance styles and the psychology in
motion that make him the most successful creator and renovator of story-telling ballet today.
** Review of San Francisco's 2013 Revival
Photos - Courtesy of Cal Performances and Miirinsky Ballet