Boston, Opera House
13 March 2014
Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella is one of the great ballets of the 20th century and a triumph of his career. From the plangent opening chords of Prokofiev’s brilliant score to the final scene in which Cinderella and her Prince recede into a brilliant future guarded by the Fairy Godmother, it’s non-stop joy and pleasure. And Boston Ballet’s new production which opened last week at the Boston Opera House (a Boston premiere) does the ballet more than full justice.
The first act is admittedly thin on plot – in the first scene, the Stepsisters torment Cinderella and prepare for the ball; in the second, the Fairy Godmother presents the Fairies of the four seasons and transforms Cinderella for the evening – but it provides the burlesque antics of the ugly Stepsisters and a good deal of beautiful solo dancing for Cinderella and the Fairies. From the beginning, we see how very original Ashton’s choreography is. In Cinderella’s first solo, she moves across the stage like a prancing horse, and when she dances with her broom, her feet mimic the movements of the sweeping broom. The fairies each have signature movements. Spring is sprightly, full of fast leaps and turns, while summer moves with lyrical languor. Autumn explodes in a burst of energy like a manic firefly, and winter points hither and yon as if hurling icicles. Endlessly inventive, Ashton adds here an unexpected hop, there a prolonged arabesque, then an off-balance leap, and always a dazzling variety of hand and arm movements.
Though firmly grounded in the movements of classical ballet, the choreography nevertheless provides a continual series of delightful surprises as Ashton constantly tweaks the dancing. The results are the most delightful form of the idiosyncratic imaginable. This is choreography that requires close attention, putting us on constant alert, but in a way that’s invigorating, not tiring. From beginning to end, it’s always fresh, always surprising, always brilliant. And it seems clear that Ashton had fun creating the ballet since the waltz for the twelve Stars at the end of Act 1 looks like an homage to Busby Berkeley.
In Act II, the Jester initiates the ball with gymnastic pyrotechnics. The Prince’s appearance is impressive but more remarkable still is Cinderella’s entrance. Preceded by her Godmother and the four Fairies and wearing an immense diaphanous cape, she descends seven steps on pointe (no mean feat) and then bourrees slowly to the front of the stage, taking tiny rapid steps on pointe with crossed legs. The effect is completely magical, like moonlight reflected on water.
There are two pas de deux in this act, but the first is merely two solos combined. The second however is a showpiece in which Cinderella’s poise and grace establish her as a regal equal in this couple. We have more prancing steps and superb lifts (one with Cinderella upside down), and as the godmother’s spell is about to be broken, Cinderella dances in circles around the stationary Prince, weaving her own enduring spell. In Act III, we see the final duet in which the Prince hoists Cinderella in one of the most spectacular lifts in all of ballet, and the couple are wed.
At the first performance I saw, Petra Conti (a new principal this season) was a lovely, limpid Fairy Godmother while Avetik Karapetyan was a magnificent Jester. (Although in his second season, this was the first time I’ve seen Karapetyan in a major role and he’s superb.) Jeffrey Cirio, who goes from better to best and beyond, was the epitome of a dashing, devoted prince, and Misa Kuranaga was luminous as Cinderella. Kuranaga has become for my money one of the best women dancers now performing. Incredibly precise, musically intelligent, with uncanny balance, magnificent technique, and charm to spare, she transports us to another dimension, one in which perfection is abundant and easy. And she and Cirio are superb as a couple, synchronized like clockwork, an amazing symbiosis.
At my second performance, Ashley Ellis as the Fairy Godmother danced better than I’ve ever seen her perform: elegance with utmost ease. Alejandro Virelles was a capable Prince, and Kathleen Breen Combes a resplendent Cinderella. Breen Combes was in fact brilliant throughout, and she brought the house down with her 51 consecutive turns at the end of her solo in Act II, as close to flawless as I’ve ever known. To see Kuranaga and Breen Combes on consecutive nights is as good as it gets.
At my third performance, Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili were a commendable couple, Dusty Button an exquisite Godmother, and Misa Kuranaga and Whitney Jensen the best Fairies of the ten I saw.
A comparison of this Boston Ballet production with the 1969 Royal Ballet production available on DVD shows Boston Ballet the clear winner. Avetik Karapetyan is a greatly superior Jester, Boyko Dossev and Yury Yanowsky as the Stepsisters are more amusing than their stolid Royal Ballet counterparts, and as splendid as Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell are as the original Cinderella and her Prince, I prefer Misa Kuranaga and Kathleen Breen Combes as Cinderella and Jeffrey Cirio as the Prince. Kuranaga’s and Combes’s dancing is more clear and crisp, their technique more crystalline, while Cirio’s dancing gives us higher leaps, greater extension, and better balance. (Sibley descends three steps on pointe when she enters the ball; the Boston ballerinas, seven steps.) Of course, like Olympic athletes, ballet dancers keep improving over time. There are young men in the corps of today’s leading companies whose technique is superior to Nureyev’s. At the present rate of improvement, we will probably soon see dancers walking on water.
David Walker gets credit for the beautiful sets and costumes, and the estimable Jonathan McPhee conducted the orchestra.