Boston Opera House
May 10, 2019
On opening night the most memorable performances in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella were given by the two stepsisters, Roddy Doble and John Lam; Spring Fairy, Ji Young Chae; and jester, Lawrence Rines. Doble, who infuses life into every role he undertakes, was in his glory as the aggressive stepsister, mugging for the audience and reveling in a self-love so ardent that it seemed almost (but not quite) innocent in its purity. Pouring scorn on his timid sister, whom he continually smacked, pushed, and eventually throttled in a fit of jealousy, Doble’s stepsister was like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in the “infinite variety” of her meanness, pugnaciousness, and vanity. It was a joy to watch.
John Lam as the smaller stepsister, the role originally played by Ashton himself, was the perfect foil. The moments at the ball when she asked her sister (twice) what to do next in her variation emphasized her dependence on her more self-assured sibling and gave depth to their relationship. Like Doble, Lam was more than willing to ham it up, and one might almost wish that he could bring a bit of the looseness and animation one saw in his stepsister to some of his other roles. That Lam was not as poignant as Ashton in the part was to be expected. No one could possibly match the choreographer on that point.
Delivering another in a series of stand-out performances during the last two seasons was Ji Young Chae. She embodied Ashton’s choreographic language with as much ease as she did that of Nissinen in The Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Fairy), Petipa in The Sleeping Beauty (Songbird and Woodland Glade fairies), Bournonville in “Flower Festival in Genzano,” and Balanchine and Danilova in Coppélia (Swanilda). Her Spring Fairy recalled the Songbird Fairy she created for Sleeping Beauty in 2107, adding to the energy and sprightliness of the latter a sense of the bourgeoning of the earth and the beneficence of nature, which is clearly what Ashton had in mind. In addition, she displayed her hallmark ability to link steps and positions so that they accrue meaning, like sentences in paragraphs.
One is grateful not only for the kind of physical and mental intelligence such dancing involves but also for her obvious desire to communicate with the audience and the joy that being onstage inspires in her. In Act III, when she danced with her sister fairies, what impressed me most was her ability to hit a position and freeze it, which she did often. The virtue of this technical feat is that it gives the audience a chance to appreciate the shapes she creates while exhibiting her complete control of every aspect of her art.
This tendency to stop the action reminded me of her performance as Swanilda in Coppélia when, in Act II, she imitated an automaton. As Dr. Coppelius’s creation, Chae was so preternaturally still that one almost believed she was made out something other than flesh and blood. That absolute stillness showed how seriously she took the challenge of demonstrating the difference between vitality and its opposite, that is, between life and death. In coming as close as possible to divesting herself of her humanity, she became an argument for the preciousness of life (as Swanilda did in the butterfly sequence of Act I) — what a tour de force.
In a similar category was Lawrence Rines’s performance as the jester, a role so taxing I wonder how anyone gets through it. Rines’s precision, his stamina, the height of his jumps, his elegance in wielding his sceptre and bowing to his social superiors was all so spot-on that, to paraphrase Ira Gershwin, one could hardly ask for anything more. Rines has been with Boston Ballet since 2009, including two years with BB II (the apprentice company), and he has steadily grown into an artist who brings not only technical prowess, though there’s plenty of that, but also real insight to all his roles.
The three leads of this performance gave less satisfying performances even though they are all accomplished dancers. The Ashton style did not seem to come naturally to the fairy godmother. She conveyed the good will of her character, but her positions seemed to exist in isolation, like beads on a string. One couldn’t discern relationships among them.
Cinderella herself did better in showing some logic in the choreography (although I thought the compass-like movements in the grand pas de deux lacked flow), but she was not a particularly convincing actress. There seemed to be no nuance in her interaction with her father, the portrait of her mother, or the prince. She was able to express surprise, distress, and delight, but it all seemed superficial.
The prince is an excellent dancing athlete who is full of confidence and can do all kinds of jumps, spins, and lifts while looking great in the process. Although there were a few moments when he used his head expressively, for the most part he did not seem to be interested in creating a character. If he ever looked at Cinderella with love in his eyes, I didn’t see it.
The Boston Ballet Orchestra seems to go from one triumph to another under the baton of new music director, Mischa Santora. Last month during the overture to Coppélia, I was so grateful that the orchestra was back, after the cacophony of the recorded score to Forsythe’s “Pas/Parts,” that I was nearly in tears. At least some of the credit must go to Delibes, but the ability of the orchestra to express the tenderness, romanticism, and exhilaration of his music was surely cause for celebration. The Prokofiev score for Cinderella has a completely different, decidedly twentieth-century, feel, and it too was beautifully realized. I was especially moved when the clock struck midnight at the ball, and the spell was broken to the accompaniment of blaring low brass and ominous dissonance, as well as when, during the grand pas de deux, the music swelled into majestic intensity. Congratulations to Santora and the orchestra for making the music such a distinguished partner in these performances.