Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY; January 17, 2015
Sitting through the first act of Alexei Ratmansky’s 2002 production of “Cinderella”, which had the first of three scheduled performances Saturday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one had to wonder what could have prompted such a fiasco. Not even Diana Vishneva, I thought, could convert this sow’s ear of ballet into a reasonably serviceable handbag, much less a silk purse. Then the second act began, and it got worse. To that point, it was the Roaring Twenties meets Punk meets Gatsby meets Tony Manero (John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever”), all as choreographed by Bob Fosse.
And then it happened. Sometime during Act II things started to make sense. Well…’make sense’ isn’t exactly the right phrase. Things started to look like there was a measure of genius behind the weirdness, and that the piece had been conceived by a mad scientist of a choreographer who perhaps had had too many strange mushrooms for breakfast – and lunch and dinner, and whose brain had been overwhelmed by outlandish, subversive ideas, all of which he threw at his staging of the beloved fairy tale to see which, if any, stuck to the wall. So maybe things didn’t make sense…maybe things just started to stick.
Whatever, suddenly this was not a revisionist “Cinderella”, or a “Cinderella” that was produced on the other side of a rabbit hole, or the anti-Ashton “Cinderella”, but a “Cinderella” that is true to the story but sees it through a prism and tells it using a different language. Sometimes, literally. And when it ended, I felt like standing and cheering that he and this marvelous cast had pulled it off – which is exactly what the full house did.
It’s certainly possible that the reason this piece finally jelled were the remarkable performances by Ms. Vishneva as Cinderella, Yekaterina Kondaurova as the Stepmother, Konstantin Zverev as the Prince, and others, and that a different cast might be unable to dig out from the ballet’s failures in Act I, which were legion. But I suspect that if this “Cinderella” is seen with an open mind, or perhaps after ingesting a few stiff drinks, it will eventually become not only comprehensible, but wonderful. And having a soft touch for a ballet love story helps.
Act I, charitably, is a disaster, and only looks somewhat better knowing how the rest of it turns out. The set, designed by Ilya Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov, looks industrial and skeletal, like an old factory that was gutted to be converted into a co-op, but the owner ran out of money. The sensation is one of icy sterility, not just by a change of venue (e.g., Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake”), but by a change in visual temperature (e.g., Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake”). Nothing is remotely ‘real’, and it moves at a lightning pace, but seems to take forever.
Ms. Vishneva first appears huddled on a balcony that looks like a fire escape turned inside out (it has a mate on the other side of the stage), watching hairdressers prepare her stepmother and stepsisters for the Prince’s ball (the invitation to the ball had been previously delivered and is a ‘given’). Cinderella’s stepmother is concurrently manic and pixilated, reflecting the hyperactive choreography that surrounds her. In contrast, Cinderella is in another world. There’s little interaction between her and the other characters, as if she doesn’t speak the same language. She’s ignored more than oppressed, and does little except dream of her dear departed mother and her intoxicated, ne’er do well father. The time could be anytime; the place anywhere.
A poor old tramp woman, heavily laden with bags of stuff, somehow wanders into the room, and Cinderella shows her some kindness, but I couldn’t tell whether she gave the old hag a coin, or just a smile. Then dance teachers arrive to teach the stepsisters, Kudishka and Kubishka, how to hip-gyrate and bump and grind like they were auditioning for the road company of “Chicago”. Cinderella is sad and dreamy (oh, for a broomstick), but the tramp returns, revealing herself as a fairy (but still looking like a bag lady).
Quicker than you can say bibbidy bobbidy boo, out pop the Four Seasons. No, not those Four Seasons. Four male dancers with body paint and weird hair (one sports a multicolored mohawk; another a mop), who become front men for seasonally-inspired solos (accompanied by seasonally appropriate back-up dancers), and subsequently dance a waltz with Cinderella that is so underwhelming it almost disappears within the glorious Prokofiev score. Then the fairy bag lady (her name, in the program, is ‘Fairy-Tramp’) gives Cinderella a flimsy-looking white flapper dress (ah – a hint of a time frame), and leads her to her fantastical coach. Well, not quite fantastical and not quite a coach: it’s a huge steel wheel that hangs from the factory ceiling, looking like the frame and innards of an industrial clock. Wait. It’s not a wheel that’s representative of a coach; it’s just a big clock. With no hands. Where’s Basil Twist when you need him?
As the scene ends, Cinderella looks up into the giant wheel. Or clock. Whatever. Perhaps waiting to be beamed to a different planet.
The only part of the scene that was in any way magical was the sound of the Mariinsky Orchestra, under Valery Gergiev’s superb direction. I’ve never heard the score executed so brilliantly. If you closed your eyes, you could forget the ballet – which, at that point, would have been a good thing to do.
Act II, the Ball, opens with the guests, nattily dressed in tuxedoes for the men and long, sleek, clingy dresses for the women. The color palette is actually quite striking, and provides a dramatic visual contrast to the drab-looking set. The costumes, brilliantly conceived here but just plain strange elsewhere, were designed by Elena Markovskaya. Their group dance is at once refined and ‘slinky’, the women shimmy and pose; the men shoot their arms up and out ahead of them like they were well-dressed chorus boys learning the Charleston. The sensation is one of nouveau-riche pseudo-sophistication; all attitude and no substance. It looks beautiful, but it’s a mess. And then the Prince jetés onto the dance floor in a white suit as if he’d been shot out of a cannon, preening and posing and full of himself. Jay Gatsby with ballon.
Eventually, the guests move to the stage perimeters, and Ms. Vishneva becomes the center of visual attention, alone, under that wheel/clock (which has turned on its axle and is now a flickering chandelier), in that white flapper dress, looking not at all sure how she got there.
Then the real magic happens – we begin to see a method to the madness, and the ballet finds its heart.
Cinderella and the Prince do what people who are attracted to each other are supposed to do. They introduce themselves, using a mime language that resembles no other ballet mime language. But it’s somehow clear as a bell, and these people from different worlds understand each other, and the viewer understands them. And watching this little thirty second mime exchange (exquisitely and touchingly conveyed by Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Zverev) suddenly made everything – well, almost everything – comprehensible. It’s the pivotal moment in the ballet. Cinderella and the Prince come from different cultural and choreographic worlds. To this point, the choreography looks (and is) strange because it’s supposed to be. In context, it’s a different language, a cultural as well as physical language that is somewhat alien to her and that she tries to learn, just as the movement quality is somewhat alien to an audience. Whether she learns it or not, and whether the audience grows accustomed to the ballet’s choreographic face, doesn’t matter nearly as much as that through it all they communicate and break through the barriers between them. Seeing it this way, what came before makes sense (or at least, stuck), and what comes later, no matter how weird, is awesome.
Following a gentle introductory duet, the guests reappear. The Prince introduces them to Cinderella, and asks her to dance for them the way they dance, the style du jour – essentially, to speak their language. It sounds improbable and perhaps insensitive of him – but he’s taken with her, and he’s proudly showing her off to his guests as Henry Higgins might show off Eliza Doolittle. In her solo, Cinderella mimics the lessons given earlier to her stepsisters, but never quite gets it right. It’s not her language. The guests applaud her effort, but make fun of her, as if she gave it a game try but had a funny accent. But the Prince is smitten and doesn’t care what they think. He dances his solo of exuberance, flying around the stage. And then, after a brief intrusion by the Stepmother and Stepsisters, the Prince and his fair lady dance a more impassioned conclusory duet. Structurally, this is roughly equivalent to a grand pas de deux, but on a grander scale. Cinderella and the Prince dance together; she dances her solo; he dances his; and, after a brief interruption by another character’s variation, the two bring the pas de deux to its climactic finale. Seeing it unfold in front of your eyes, all in thematic context, is breathtaking.
Even though more stuff was thrown against the wall in Act III, the focus was different. It was human and funny and I could have watched all night.
From this point, the Ratmansky dry wit takes over, and Act III is sweet and softly hilarious rather than grating as is Act I. The Prince, now looking like a Princeton preppie complete with sweater and messenger bag draped over his shoulder, assisted by his designated minions, searches throughout his kingdom, or at least throughout Long Island and New Jersey, for the girl whose foot would fit the abandoned glass slipper. He’s an equal opportunity prince, and gives everyone a chance, including a bemused gaggle of scantily-clad prostitutes and a small army of boys outfitted in flaming turquoise pants. Somehow Ratmansky is both politically correct and politically incorrect simultaneously.
Back in Cinderella’s factory home, she takes a position on a fire escape landing, holding the remaining shoe, while her stepmother and stepsister attempt to squeeze into the golden glass slipper. After all attempts fail, the shoe is dropped to the floor in disgust. Then, no dummy, Cinderella lets the shoe that she was holding while she watched from that fire escape/balcony fall to the floor. Yes, the other shoe drops. The Prince looks up, spies Cinderella, knows she’s ‘The One’, and…there’s a balcony scene, of sorts, where the two pass each other going up and down two sides of the same fire escape/staircase. Eventually they overcome the division that separates them, the two separated sides of the stairwell, dance passionately (but no, it’s not MacMillan), the fairy tramp lady calmly picks up the two slippers and stuffs them back into her bag to await her next godchild in need, and the ballet ends with Cinderella and the Prince on the floor, in each other’s arms.
Although the choreography is a strange mixture of ballet and ‘something else’ (at time looking like Twyla Tharp on steroids), it seems wickedly difficult to do, and even more difficult to do well. They may be portraying caricatures, but the dancing throughout, top to bottom, is exceptional, and the corps dancers, who are unidentified, are almost as remarkable here as they were in the Mariinsky’s “Swan Lake”.
Among the featured dancers, Margarita Frolova and Yekatrina Ivannikova as Khudishka and Kubishka, and Viktoria Brileva and Yuri Smekalov, the fiery and jazzy Dance Teachers, sparkled. Alisa Sodoleva and Alexey Tyutyunik, the leaders of the girl and boy packs in Act III, were appropriately swivel-hipped, slinky, and seductive.
But the three leads carried the ballet, and they were fabulous. I had not previously seen Mr. Zverev, but I found him to be particularly impressive. He was vain, conceited and arrogant one minute, and a sweetheart of a kind, loving prince the next. To those even remotely familiar with the Mariinsky, Ms. Kondaurova is a known quantity: a tall, striking dancer to watch, even without the orange hair she wears here. Based on the limited times I’ve seen her, and on her performance in this piece, she comes across as powerful as Polina Semionova, but much more delicate, with a vague facial resemblance to Sylvie Guillem. She dominates the stage and everyone on it not because she towers over everyone else, but because she’s so good. That she also was obviously having a blast was a bonus.
And then there’s Diana Vishneva. Just when you thought that there is nothing more that this extraordinary ballerina can give or show, she outdoes herself. She is a phenomenon for whom descriptive words are inadequate. She stretches performance boundaries as much as she stretches her limbs every time she appears on stage, and can communicate as much standing still as moving, with an angle of her head, the curl of her lips, or a flash of her eyes. And when she does move, it’s as if she’s inhaling steps through every pore, and with every muscle and liquid bone. There’s no sign that she’s slowing down. And no matter how hard one might try, one cannot help but be transferred to the stage, to be next to her, and to be captivated by her.
I once wrote that if I could, I would travel the world to see Diana Vishneva dance. That is still true.