One would expect the somewhat one-dimensional nature of the fairy tale, with its characteristic enchantment and romance, to translate predictably into the traditional ballet form. The Boston Ballet's production of Cinderella, however, offers a surprising and successful mix of fable, fantasy and farce. Ben Stevenson's unique choreography combined with David Walker's exquisite sets and costumes and the energetically unpredictable Prokofiev score create new artistic possibilities for this magical storybook tale.
Everyone knows the story of Cinderella--how the good and beautiful Cinderella, a slave to her evil and ugly stepsisters, is unexpectedly visited by a transcendent fairy godmother who transforms her rags into a beautiful ball gown, a pumpkin into a carriage and mice into horses. With these new alterations, Cinderella eagerly joins the rest of the elite of the kingdom at the royal ball where she wins the affections of Prince Charming. The clock strikes midnight, her carriage turns back into a pumpkin, Cinderella dramatically runs out of the palace leaving her petite glass slipper behind. No romance would be complete without a quest. Prince Charming travels all over the kingdom with the one slipper in search of the precious foot it belongs to. (Alas, he finds it, and Cinderella and Prince Charming live happily ever after.)
If simply for the sake of the children (and there were many in this audience), the Boston Ballet could never leave out these essentials of so universal a fairy tale. Yet, twists of character and additional elements of style transcend the basic story-line, bringing an element of theater to dance. In a spirit that combines a touch of Shakespearean drama with Hasty Pudding theatricals, the ever predictable evil stepsisters are not so predictable. In the first scene of Act I, the stepsisters enter the stage dauntingly tall, grotesquely covered in makeup, and shockingly clumsy, heavy and graceless. If this contrast to the traditional, petite, lithesome ballerina did not tune one in, the exposure of bulging arms and gigantic hands by the middle of the act confirm that these step "sisters", brilliantly performed by Todd Eric Allen and Howard Merlin, are simply not women.
This unique turn of the plot works on a number of levels throughout the performance. In the sisters' mockery of dance both in their home and later in-front of the ball, and in their interplay with the Shakespearean court jester (dressed in the Lampoon's purple, red and yellow), the sisters offer an unexpected element of hilarity to romance and of mockery to ballet's conservatism. While offering comic relief, the cross-gender casting also fits into the old English tradition of en travestie, linking theater to dance. Finally, stylistically, the stage presence of two giant stepsisters dwarf the waif-like Cinderella, played by Jennifer Gelfand, enhancing the sense of her powerlessness. Between the cross-gender roles and cross-dressing, the many onstage garment changes, and the court jester character reminiscent of Shakespeare's "fools" and "players," Harvard's own Professor Marjorie Garber would live and die for this performance.
Because the stepsisters dominate this first scene, the ballet opens with a sense of mime and drama rather than dance, but this quickly ends. The company's exquisite dance and flawless movement mark the rest of the performance.
The dancers work on a communal level, each contributing to the whole of the performance, rather than based on a traditional hierarchy. Cinderella, Prince Charming, and the fairy godmother in no way dominate the performance. If any characters stand out, it is the stepsisters and that is for reasons beyond the level of dance. In fact, the fairy godmother's role seems disappointing and anticlimactic. She enters as a mysteriously draped witch-like figure, yet when she throws off her cape, her tiny insect-like wings and simplistic dance movements, which at best included numerous bourres pointe across the stage, brought Tinker Bell to mind rather than a sublime maternal figure. Similarly, Gelfand's performance as Cinderella lacks the strength called upon by the role, relegating her stage presence to the ranks of The Nutecracker's Clara rather than the fairy tale's triumphant princess.
The Godmother calls on her numerous helpers which include four male dragonflies and four fairies, one for each season, to transform Cinderella. The added scene involving beautiful set changes and an increased musical pace creates a sense of the fantastic in the overlap between the real and the sublime. The angular movements of the dragonflies add a modern touch to this scene and the spectacular performances by the four season fairies carry the first Act.
The dance at the ball, the court jester's wild leaps and pirouettes, and two pas de deuxs between Prince and Cinderella punctuate the second and third Acts. In the ballroom dance, 12 couples richly dressed in deep crimson embroidered with gold, intricately and rhythmically weave through the space. The court jester, performed by Daniel Meja, captivated the audience with his surprising and sly movement, expressing through dance a complex wit. Lastly, Prince Charming, performed by Lazlo Berdo, penetrated the space with his deep chaussees and powerful tour jetes. Despite his technical expertise, his movements felt princely stiff, counterbalancing Cinderella's fairy-tale flatness. While this combination leaves the first pas de deux lacking, the tenderness and grace of two lovers discovering and recovering each other comes through in the subtle passion of the movement by the second pas de deux.
Cinderella offers a unique involvement with a fairy tale deeply embedded in all of us. The interplay between drama and dance, gender and jester leaves the viewer with a new and deeper sense of the fairy tale and its possibilities.