American Ballet Theatre
New York, Metropolitan Opera House
1 (mat), 2 July 2015
Out of the Ashes
How many ballets – or works of art – make you snort with laughter one moment and choke back tears the next? I can think of very few, chief among them Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella, which returned this week to American Ballet Theatre after its company première one year ago. Cinderella’s power lies in the way it continually crosses the line between conflicting emotions, provoking almost involuntary reactions in the viewer. It pleases children – laughter rang out during a recent matinée – while at the same time awakening feelings of mystery and wonder in adults.
How does it accomplish this? Well, there’s the Prokofiev score, of course, with its weird, dark, sumptuous blend of sarcasm, jazziness, and cosmic shimmer. It is music that evokes the illogic and strangeness of dreams (and nightmares), spiked with sudden, inexplicable changes of mood. An example: after the silliness of the opening kitchen scene, with its dissonances and syncopations, everything goes quiet; a glistening melody begins on the strings, and Cinderella’s kitchen-and-sink world disappears. This interstellar music – throbbing, insistent – announces the arrival of the fairy godmother. The effect is like a sudden drop in temperature, the flip of a switch.
Prokofiev’s score, sumptuous as it is, can be unwieldy. At times; it’s too heavy, too lugubrious, too cynical. It has stumped many a choreographer, including James Kudelka (who created a previous version of the ballet for ABT) and Alexei Ratmansky, who has already made two versions, one for the Mariinsky in 2002 and another for the Australian Ballet in 2013. But, somehow, Frederick Ashton is able to transcend its potentially deflating weight, using its darker hues to introduce mystery without losing momentum. A spirit of generosity tempers its harder edges; his ability to make us feel Cinderella’s vulnerability and loneliness does the rest. Through her, we sense Ashton’s intimate acquaintance with these emotions.
His Cinderella works both as entertainment and as ballet; it is almost evenly divided between mime – quite broad, but always crisply musical – and intricate, finely-wrought choreography. The two stepsisters are played by men. Their clowning is tremendously silly – they fall, twist their ankles, fight, wear funny hats – but so well timed that one can’t help but laugh. (The moment when one of them stomps on a wayward wig makes me giggle every time.) Then, there is the dancing: musically-sensitive, complicated, full of detail. The extended waltz in the second act, following Cinderella’s arrival at the ball, is a marvel of construction and accumulating complexity. Each new layer adds to its emotional power.
That scene ends with a stage composition that evokes the orderly, harmonious world of another ballet – Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty – a constant point of reference for Ashton. After seeing Ratmansky’s historically-informed new Beauty earlier in the season, it’s impossible not to notice just how many references to that ballet Ashton folded into his own. There is an echo of the vision scene – in which Aurora and her prince are kept apart by a corps of nymphs – at the ball. A lift from the wedding pas de deux in Beauty, in which the woman tucks her legs beneath her, is repeated several times in the two pas de deux in Cinderella. There are direct quotations of the fairy’s solos (fingers pointing, wrists wriggling). A pose from Beauty – low attitude, one arm up, eyes downcast – makes a quick appearance, like a talisman.
Not every reference is meant to be taken seriously. A slapstick move for one of the two stepsisters quotes the famous Beauty fish dives, except that here, the galumphing demoiselle misses her partner’s arm and ends up unceremoniously cradled in the jester’s unloving arms.
With its lengthy roster of roles, comic and classical, Cinderella is a challenge and a gift to any company. ABT, which seems to be going through an Ashtonian moment, is fielding no less than four casts. I caught two performances (the July 1 matinée and the evening show on July 2), both of them appealing, sensitive, and stylish. The ensemble bent and twisted, using shoulders, plié and wafting arms to full effect. Its first appearance was particularly striking: the women hinge directly forward from the waist, like dolls, then pop up, their arms lifted in a sharp V, then twist around with their arms in a diagonal. The crispness of the phrasing makes one snap to attention. (Later, they do it again, but this time their arms float down slowly, softly.)
The solos for the four fairies – the ladies who prepare Cinderella for the ball – were vividly danced by both casts. On July 1, Stephanie Williams sustained a smooth, weighted legato in the slow, languid, choreography for the Summer Fairy. Both Sarah Lane and Cassandra Trenary were sharp and quick, full of coiled energy, as Spring. As Autumn, Luciana Paris (July 1) pawed at the ground and darted around like a young colt. April Giangeruso was authoritative and grand as Winter. Each fairy was accompanied by two tiny pages in Rococo regalia. (The story-book sets and Empire-waisted dresses are by David Walker.) Devon Teuscher (July 1) and Isabella Boylston (July 2) had markedly different takes on the role of the fairy godmother: Teuscher was pellucid and benevolent; Boylston mercurial, seductive, joyful. And those bourrées!
At both performances, the role of the jester was danced by Gabe Stone Shayer; he tossed off the character’s teasing jumps and fluid high kicks with enviable ease. He was playful, but slightly mysterious and mocking; he had a sly way of engaging the audience and even the conductor with his eyes. Both casts of step-sisters, hammy and ridiculous, came off well, particularly a stomping, toothy Roman Zhurbin as the older sister.
As in Sleeping Beuaty, the prince is a bit of a nobody, a stand-in for noble goodness and idealized love, his anonymity further underlined by the presence of four clones – sorry, “friends” – at the ball. Joseph Gorak, who danced the role on July 1, is the embodiment of this princely type, with impeccable transitions, perfect placement, and an arabesque line to make a dance-lover’s heart sing. But there is something almost constricting about his perfection – he needs to to let go a little, at the expense, perhaps, of some cleanliness of execution. His partnering, too, lacks assurance. In his arms, Stella Abrera, débuting in the role of Cinderella on July 1st, looked tense, unsure of what might happen next.
In other ways, however, Abrera’s was a poignant and lovely début. In the justly famous entrance at the ball, she glided down a steep staircase on pointe and floated forward to the front of the stage in a kind of dream, head tilted slightly upward, arms open as if to greet the audience and the world beyond it. I found myself holding my breath. The day before, she had been promoted to principal, after eleven years as a soloist; the moment felt doubly charged. Abrera’s Cinderella (like her Giselle a few weeks ago) was characterized by simplicity, directness, sincerity. Abrera isn’t one to gild the lily, which is one of the reasons why she has sometimes been overlooked in favor of other more showy or more virtuosic dancers. But simplicity, too, has its place, particularly in a ballet like Cinderella.
The principal dancers on July 2 were Marianela Nuñez, a guest from the Royal Ballet, and James Whiteside. Nuñez, who is Argentinian, is also an understated dancer, with an innate sweetness and a radiant, shy smile. Her dancing is limpid and strong; her footwork, in particular, has a pinprick precision. Certain details came through more clearly in her interpretation: she held positions just a little longer, the better to show a transition, or a backbend, or a pose. But, perhaps because it was her first appearance with ABT, her dancing seemed a little cautious, a little contained. She was well looked after by Whiteside, one of the company’s most stalwart partners.
But the star of Cinderella is the ballet itself – Ashton’s tribute to Petipa, to silliness, and to the power of childlike wonder. It’s the world as seen through the eyes of a lonely young women who finds her place.