It’s not your granddaughter’s Cinderella. Alexei Ratmansky’s version, given its West Coast premiere at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Thursday, October 1, dispenses with tutus and glass carriages in favor of a deco-cum‒post-Soviet point of view. Commissioned by the Mariinsky in 2002, Ratmansky’s maiden story ballet aims for sophistication but turns out to be half-cooked, like the first crepe off the griddle.
This is not news; from the start, the ballet has received praise for Ratmansky’s originality and pans for weak storytelling. Minimalist decor and costumes give the production a wonderfully streamlined look and set the stage for an updated retelling of Perrault’s fairy tale. They also put the entire focus on characters that are little more than tropes and show no development over a nearly three-hour performance. With that much music to fill, characters need to do more than introduce themselves, be themselves and take their bows. But I note Gavriel Heine led the Mariinsky Orchestra through Prokofiev’s 1945 score, and their exuberant rendition made the entire evening worthwhile.
Ratmansky’s Act I is a tedious series of character presentations, with dancers popping out from behind fire-escape-like staircases to enact vignettes, then recede, return and repeat. The stepmother and stepsisters bicker, the drunken father stumbles pathetically, Cinderella meekly accepts abuse and neglect from all of them. These basics are established within the first few dances, thanks to a generally superb cast that included Diana Vishneva in the title role, Anastasia Petushkova as the stepmother, and Margarita Frolova and Ekaterina Ivannikova as the stepsisters – but the act drags on for another 40 minutes.
Petushkova is a character actress par excellence, playing her character’s grotesqueries for laughs without ever stooping to crudeness. She and her daughters – who seem more misguided than malicious in this telling – showed their technical command in off-balance choreography that sends up classical ballet and hints at the contemporary angles realised more fully in Ratmansky’s 2005 ballet The Bolt. Ratmansky has a gift for choreographing comedy, and the dancers’ masterful timing elevated it above mere slapstick. As stepsister Kubishka (“Fat”), Ivannikova mustered surprisingly deft jumps while wearing a heavily padded costume.
For her part, Vishneva was as lyrical as ever in a role that was created on her, but she came alive only when Konstantin Zverev’s prince arrived midway through Act II. It was a long time to wait for the show to get started, but eureka! Suddenly we understood what all the fuss was about. Cinderella’s unfolding elegance and the prince’s down-to-earth dash met in the middle, and it mattered little that their dancing was a grand pas post-classique when action was badly needed. Zverev’s clarity and ballon, paired with Vishneva’s liquid strength, infused purpose into every phrase and energized the ballet through to the final curtain.
Swirling around them were a substantial corps cast in a reimagined big-band ballroom scene, where they executed waltzes and tangos as readily as the swim and the Madison. In fright wigs, face paint and crop-top unitards, Vasily Tkachenko, Konstantin Ivkin and Andrey Soloviev went for broke as three of the four seasons; only Alexey Popov as Summer seemed to hold back, and no one could fault him for having second thoughts about performing in his risible getup.
Cinderella continues at Cal Performances through the weekend, then travels to Los Angeles for the tour’s final stop. It’s been to London, Edinburgh, New York, Washington DC. Now that it’s made the rounds, the Mariinsky can feel comfortable leaving it at home.