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Friday, June 13, 2014

Cinderella, 6/11/14 and 6/12/14

My favorite moments of Ashton's Cinderella have no actual dancing. My first favorite moment is when the in-drag stepsisters start throwing oranges in the air at the Prince's ball. My second is late in the third act, and Cinderella's stepsisters are sitting at home. They start playing pat-a-cake and Cinderella tries to joins them. They are both wonderfully human moments that, for one, makes the sisters not truly evil, but more silly and pitiable.



Ashton could always add those slice-of-life touches into his ballets. In Fille mal gardee Lise and Colas express their love through a game of cat's cradle. If Balanchine elevated dancers to Olympian heights, asking them to dance faster, higher, stronger, Ashton brought his dancers firmly back down to earth. His version of Cinderella is still the best one (and there are a lot of versions) because of its disarming simplicity and poignancy. For instance, when lonely Cinderella puts a cloth over her broom and starts dancing with the broom, it says so much about her life. The broom is to her what the terry-cloth blanket was for those rhesus monkeys.

Ashton's choreographed the wistful, sometimes melancholy Prokofiev score with an understated beauty and elegance. He obviously was inspired by Sleeping Beauty -- the season fairy variations echo the fairies in the prologue of Sleeping Beauty, and the star fairies choreography has more than a passing resemblance to the Vision Scene. A repeated move he uses is that most joyful of jumps, the pas de chat. Cinderella first does a series of pas de chats with her broom. The star fairies also enter with pas de chats, as do the courtiers. The small, happy jump establishes the optimistic tone of the work. But Ashton also leaves enough ambiguity. For instance, the finale doesn't end with a big tableau, or a flashy pas de deux. Instead, Cinderella and her Prince simply walk off into the snowy night. Is it happily ever after?

The ABT's production of the Ashton classic is a work in progress but shows that overall, if pushed to dance quality choreography, they can rise to the occasion. The chief weakness with the ABT is they can't master Ashton's tricky, elaborate, ever-changing port-de-bras. There exists an old televised film from the 1950's with Margot Fonteyn as Cinderella that shows how it's supposed to look -- natural, an organic part of the choreography, and done in a relaxed, unexaggerated way. The ABT, with their bare-bones rehearsals, don't seem to have been taught much besides "arms up, arms down, arms to the left, arms to the right." The seasons variations and the stars waltz both were marred by this jerky, up, down, left, right arm movements.

I saw two performances, on 6/11 and 6/12. The first performance was an unexpected last minute gift by my sister and before the performance I got a tour backstage where I saw the sets and drops. This production was borrowed from Joffrey Ballet and is looking its age -- the painted backdrops look dark and joyless.

The two leads for the 6/11 performance (Xiomara Reyes and Joseph Gorak) are not among the ABT's "stars" -- Gorak is still in the corps de ballet and Reyes despite doing wonderful work for many years has always been too hampered by her tiny size and lack of bravura technique to move into the prima ballerina roles like Odette/Odile and Nikya. The performance had a wonderful beauty and tenderness. Gorak is a classic danseur noble type -- handsome, with long classical lines and beautiful feet. He's like David Hallberg before David Hallberg became DAVID HALLBERG. His variation was wonderful -- that difficult double tour/pirouette sequence posed no problems for him. Reyes doesn't have the easiest arabesque nor the longest balances, but she's adept at the petit batterie of Ashton's choreography. What's more, her Cinderella has a genuine, soulful sweetness. Devon Teuscher (Fairy Godmother) was absolutely stunning -- beautiful, authoritative, soothing. Arron Scott was wonderful as the Jester. But the anchors of the performance were Thomas Forster as the Bossy Stepsister and Kenneth Easter as the Timid Stepsister. Both of them brought such zany energy and joy to the performance. They weren't just men in drag -- they really differentiated themselves in character. Easter in particular was wonderful as she always fell in love, only to be rejected. They looked like they were having a ball. The audience was laughing with them, not at them.

The 6/12 performance was the "all-star" performance. Gillian Murphy as Cinderella, David Hallberg as Prince, Veronika Part as the Fairy Godmother. Gillian is a much stronger, spunkier Cinderella -- she got a laugh out of pointedly imitating her stepsister's dancing. And she articulated the steps in a sharper, clearer way than Xiomara, who despite her sweetness dances everything on a small, low-impact scale. When Gillian entered the ballroom by walking down those steps on pointe there was no gingerness or hesitation. Her pique turns as she dazzled the prince were, well, dazzling. When she did that manége (those circular leaps around the stage) in the ballroom scene she flew. She uncharacteristically fell off pointe for a moment in the Act 3 pas de deux but otherwise she proved again why she's so invaluable to ABT -- a strong technician who almost never gets injured. David Hallberg certainly has the princely lines and also the bravura technique in spades -- his double tours followed by pirouettes were so clean and light. Veronika Part was just divine as the Fairy Godmother -- I could watch her liquidy arms wave that wand for eternity. This is the perfect kind of role for her -- you can revel in her creamy phrasing and glamour, and not worry for the next time she has to fouette. Luis Ribagorda practically exploded off the stage as the Jester.

Yet overall the performance was cooler than the previous night's performance. Hallberg and Murphy for all their astonishing technique are not really warm dancers. They command the stage, but they're both a bit aloof. In their ballroom pas de deux Ashton employed one of his favorite trademark movements -- the "walking" lift, in which the woman is lifted to shoulder length and then walks on air across the stage. Gorak and Reyes made something so sweet and tender about that moment. Hallberg and Murphy didn't have the same "I see stars in my eyes" energy. Roman Zhurbin and Craig Salstein as the Sisters also didn't have quite the energy and rapport of Easter and Forster. Salstein in particular was just the Campy Drag Dancer and didn't really try to differentiate his character from Zhurbin's.

One area where tonight's performance was superior was the Season fairies. Skylar Brandt, Christine Shevchenko, Yuriko Kajiya and Melanie Hamrick were a much stronger quartet than the previous evening's -- less brittle and jerky, and again, the Ashton arms looked more rehearsed.

ABT is such a frustrating company. It has such talented dancers. Yet its repertoire and the very top-down casting means that many of those talented dancers languish in the corps for years, dancing a variation here and there until they up and leave. The lack of rehearsal time is notorious, as is the dearth of coaches and many departing dancers have commented on the callous management. But when it dances something like Cinderella, you believe that these dancers with all their talent, maybe they will have that happy ending.

I actually did the stage door thing tonight. David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy were so gorgeous! The other two guys are Sterling Baca, the Dance Master, and Luis Ribagorda, the Jester.





4 comments:

  1. Hey, Ivy:
    I was there Thursday evening as well! . . I agree with you about the Sisters being more pathetic and silly than evil, and I think Prokofiev's music reflects that. He characterizes the Capulets and the Montagues with MUCH more bite. I always smile when Prokofiev embellishes the Sisters' theme in Act II (the "orange dance") with that little "horse laugh" descant over the main melody.

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    1. I've seen several versions of Cinderella and I think Ashton's is the only one who really characterizes the sisters as more silly than anything. The others go overboard.

      Ashton, by the way, in real life, was very much like the "sad" stepsister he played onstage. He always said, "In love, I'm the loser." He had a series of male crushes throughout his life but nothing lasting.

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  2. Really? I did not know that about Ashton's love life--but I admit I know very little about Ashton. That makes me feel even more sympathy for the "sad" sister. I've always felt that the theme Prokofiev gave the Sisters had an element of melancholy in it that has always tugged at my heart. Perhaps Ashton felt that way too!

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    1. There's a great biography about him by Julie Kavanagh.

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