Cinderella Puts On Her Ballet Slippers

Boston Ballet takes Cinderella out of the fairy tale

There is perhaps no story that has endured as many interpretations, transformations, and mutilations as “Cinderella.” Once upon a time, Greece, China, and Japan all told versions of the tale, long before it was published by France’s Charles Perrault in 1697. Many years later, the Brothers Grimm’s Aschenputtel was transformed by Walt Disney, wicked fairy godfather that he was, into the blonde and beautiful cerulean gowned princess that we all know today. Not one to stay behind the times, ballet jumped on the bandwagon in 1893 with a debut of a version by that legendary deity of traditional 19th century ballet, Marius Petipa, choreographed for St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Ballet. Premieres of new “Cinderellas” followed at the approximate rate of one per decade, boasting such marquee names as Michael Fokine, Konstantin Sergeyev, Frederick Ashton, and Rudolf Nureyev, with orchestrations by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johann Strauss, and Sergei Prokofiev. James Kudelka stepped into this whirlwind in 2004, intending to create something fresh and new.

Boston Ballet is currently performing this most recent incarnation, which will run through Oct. 26, 2008. There are Art Deco sets and Roaring Twenties-inspired fashion: tousled chignons and sparkly fringe. There are also Holly Golightly-esque cigarette holders, an annoying paparazzo, a few Popeye types, and flamenco dancers. Yet for all this innovation, it’s not relatable. It’s neither real nor magical. There is neither a Patrick Dempsey nor a quixotic Prince Charming; instead a rather bored, whimsical type broods in their place. There is no happily-ever-after in a distant enchanted castle—Cinderella and her love are married in a quaint afternoon ceremony in their backyard garden, content to live a quiet life among its various botanical wonders. Something was lost in translation.

Yet the production is saved by the individual performances that make the whole a pleasurable experience. On Sunday evening, Erica Cornejo was a wispy, lithe Cinderella. Cornejo is a recent import from American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where she received top billing dancing the part of the bespectacled, uncoordinated, and hysterical “other” step-sister two years ago. What was New York’s loss is Boston’s gain: her extraordinary, larger-than-life jump and passionate, explosive movement as Cinderella here is breath-taking. With one step she consumes the whole stage, and you need not hold your breath as she executes a series of turns with incredible speed and force (with one foot en pointe and the other barefoot, mind you). Cornejo’s raw energy and physicality was irresistible, helping to justify Kudelka’s non-traditional vision.

Misa Kuranaga stole most of the first act as “Blossom,” one of four assistants to the Fairy Godmother, who presides over the aforementioned—magical—backyard garden. In a variation that could not have lasted longer than two minutes, her absolutely perfect execution was as crystal-clear as the glass slipper that’s missing from Kudelka’s production.

This Cinderella wears a satin pointe shoe adorned with crystals, and it’s Kudelka’s most brilliant contribution—though the image is spoiled as she is stripped of it and her clothes, to be revealed barefoot and in a silk slip, surrounded by an army of pumpkin-heads.

The visual highlight of the performance was the descent of an enormous, illuminated pumpkin into the ballroom, with Cornejo perched elegantly inside, shrouded in a Cruella de Vil-like fur cape. Bachelors in penguin suits escorted bachelorettes with wonderful gusto. As Prince Charming, Nelson Madrigal had all of the second act to lament in a style reminiscent of Prince Siegfried’s melancholy soliloquy in “Swan Lake.” Though lacking overwhelming charisma, he made up for it with his superb partnering of an audacious Cornejo. Her abrupt, instinctual shifts in direction as she leapt at his shoulder felt as though they could hardly have been agreed to in the rehearsal studio. The climactic pas de deux consisted of serpentine twists and wraps and Soviet-style lifts, and what was lacking in emotional rapture was expressed in sheer physicality.

Kudelka’s decision to cast women as the step-sisters, as opposed to the traditional strategy of employing men, was rooted in the hope that they would pull off the shtick and slap-stick humor with more high-brow jest than the gender-bending farce. Cornejo herself was more naturally entertaining at ABT than were Tempe Ostergren and Megan Gray here, but both are leggy beauties who mugged with aplomb.

However, a good comedy needs wit, and a powerful fairy-tale needs phantasmagoric romance, and James Kudelka’s “Cinderella” had neither. In the end, though, it’s still a “Cinderella” story, which was acknowledged both by the very receptive audience and the same paparazzo snagging a last photo of the bride as the curtain came down. As Cinderella evolves from dreamy chamber-maiden into social royalty, she progresses, with thrilling parallelism, from soft canvas slippers to Swarovski-encrusted pointe shoes. The resulting three-act trajectory surely served as the first foray into the world of tutus and tiaras for many wide-eyed girls in the audience.