Boston Opera House, Boston, MA; March 14 and 21, 2014
From March 13 through 23 Boston Ballet presented, for the first time, the Frederick Ashton version of “Cinderella.” It has previously offered four other productions of the classic fairy tale, the most recent being James Kudelka’s (in 2008), which was set in the 1920s, complete with flapper dresses and an incredible flying pumpkin-cum-carriage.
One of my reservations about the Kudelka version was that the two stepsisters were ballerinas in pointe shoes, so it was hard to believe they didn’t know how to dance (as the dancing-master sequence demands) since they were dancing – very well – right before one’s eyes. The stepsisters in Ashton’s version, being men in drag, manage through dint of meticulous work to appear truly awkward. They fight like stray cats, flirt like elephants in heat, crash into each other, fall down in heaps and, in general, enjoy themselves immensely.
Ashton created the role of the shy stepsister for himself, and he was unforgettable in the role (the performance is available on DVD), but there’s no point in trying to replicate the poignancy of Ashton’s performance. It can’t be done. Better to put one’s own personality into it, as Robert Kretz did in the March 14 cast. Both he and Sabi Varga, as the aggressive stepsister (the role originated by Robert Helpmann), managed to be charming as well as hilariously pugnacious, and their slapstick humor was both well done and well received.
Yury Yanowsky and Boyko Dossev played the stepsisters on March 21, and they created even more distinctive personalities. There’s no one who projects aggressiveness onstage better than Yanowsky, and when he gave his sister a push (which was fairly often), he did it with such force that one fully expected her to go flying off into the wings. Yanowsky was a memorable Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet,” and one could catch just a glimpse of Tybalt’s rage in his comic bullying. Dossev really brought out the timid yet vain, innocent yet knowing qualities of the Ashton stepsister, who gave as good as she got and provided the perfect foil for Yanowsky’s belligerence.
The first cast I saw featured absolutely top-notch performances from Kathleen Breen Combes as the Fairy Godmother and Whitney Jensen as the Fairy Summer. Breen Combes was nothing short of miraculous. She made the Ashton choreography into a language with its own grammar and vocabulary. Each moment was shaped so that there was no perceptible difference between pose and transition. The sense of steps per se disappeared, and one saw only a single line throughout the entire variation.
Much the same could be said for Jensen, whose embodiment of a long, hot summer, with languid positions that included wiping the perspiration from her brow, was also informed by absolute mastery of Ashton’s choreographic language. The port de bras of both dancers was all unbroken flow.
As Cinderella, Ashley Ellis was especially touching in act I when communing with the portrait of her dead mother. Moreover, throughout the performance she showed all her signature virtues: the amazing extension and precision of her positions and the slowly unfurling hands of her delicate port de bras.
The celebrated act II entrance to the ball showcased Ellis’ uncanny ability to connect with the audience through a kind of inner radiance. As she came down the staircase and bourréed toward us, her face was lit up with wonder. It was the kind of spiritually revealing moment she excels at creating.
When she awoke from her trance-like state with the prince at her side, however, one didn’t feel much electricity between them. This was unfortunate since one couldn’t ask for a more attentive prince than Eris Nezha. As a partner he was completely confident and clearly loved showing off his ballerina. As a soloist, he had big leaps and turns, not to mention such intensely blue eyes that they seemed able to penetrate into the future.
Since first seeing the act II grand pas de deux (in Youtube clips), I had wondered about its clock-like look. Eventually I realized that Ashton took his cue from Prokofiev, who wrote a tick-tock figure on wooden block for the prince, which is then taken up by the pizzicato of the strings for Cinderella.
It seems to me that the choreography also reflects Cinderella’s knowledge that she is under a spell. In this respect Cinderella is very much like Odile in that she has a secret. She can’t communicate it directly to the prince, but in her squared-off movements she pantomimes the effect the spell will have on her and the impossibility of escaping from it. In “Swan Lake” the prince refuses to get the message; in “Cinderella” he is simply oblivious.
Breen Combes as Cinderella in the March 21 cast breathed astonishing life into Ashton’s references to time pieces and hidden messages. In the grand pas de deux she managed to create clock-like positions, but still maintain a softness of line that was true to the essence of Cinderella’s character. She found opportunities to give her prince little loving looks, and she sometimes reminded me of Odette cradled in Seigfried’s arms as she melted into the prince’s embrace. It all seemed to indicate a profound understanding of Ashton’s style.
Her prince was Alejandro Virelles, who appeared to be much more self-assured and relaxed than when I saw him in “La Bayadère” last fall. He created a wonderfully convincing relationship with Cinderella and tossed off all his leaps and turns with ease. What a pleasure to see him come into his own.
In this performance I found Dusty Button to be outstanding as Fairy Winter. Her precisely frozen positions (all puns intended) made me think of Myrtha in “Giselle.” There was a beautiful severity in her evocation of ice and snow. Anaïs Chalendard as Fairy Summer was not as languid as Jensen, but something about her fierce commitment to every role she undertakes commands one’s attention.
The sets by David Walker were all in sepia tones, so when act II opened, and the ladies and gentlemen at the ball were revealed in costumes of reds, purples and gold, the effect was almost startling. That’s also true of Cinderella’s glittering carriage (with a small child in the driver’s seat), which made a rapid sweep across the stage before transporting her to the prince. The translucent cape she wore during her entrance to the ball, set off by a huge stand-up collar, was a tour de force of the costume maker’s art as were the brilliant white outfits for Cinderella and the prince in acts II and III.
A moving penultimate moment in the plot occurred in act III when Cinderella, in a gesture of forgiveness, kissed her stepsisters on both cheeks. The final tableau of the heroine and her prince standing with their backs to the audience as sparkling confetti rained down upon them, brought the production to a striking, and in terms of the lovers’ tribulations, well-earned conclusion.
Prokofiev’s score is an immense and complicated one, and the Boston Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of principal conductor, Jonathan McPhee, on March 14, and assistant conductor, Geneviève Leclair, on March 21, gave it great vitality. The fulfillment of the spell at midnight, with its clanging percussion and enormous blasts from the low brass, was especially dramatic. The orchestra has only two rehearsals per production, but consistently produces performances of the highest possible caliber. Dancers of the company, one and all, are privileged to work with such a distinguished group of musicians.