Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
July 1 (m), 4 (e), 2015

Jerry Hochman

Last year, I described Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella as a relic that can be appreciated for what it was, but perhaps no longer for what it is. Although there were moments when the action perked up enough to be enjoyable, most of the time, I thought it was totally devoid of any excitement, with starched and overly complicated steps, and not very funny where it was supposed to be. Worse, it looked fussy and prissy, as if it had been preserved in aspic. Like a fairy tale within a fairy tale, and an artificial one at that.

There’s not much acting either. Cinderella is sweet and good-hearted with two emotional faces: the Cinderella who dreams, and the Cinderella whose dream comes true. This ballet isn’t about falling in love; it’s a one-dimensional children’s story about dreams coming true. Although some of the staging in Act II’s ballroom scene is inventive, the ballet overall has little texture, and no depth. I felt the same way after seeing last Wednesday’s afternoon performance by ABT, my first exposure to Cinderella this season.

I did, however, enjoy the Ashton version in a Royal Ballet performance ten years earlier; looking back, probably because of the lead performance by Alina Cojocaru. So perhaps it works better with a ballerina of similar capability and engaging attitude. Along comes Marianela Núñez, and voilà.

Núñez, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, has such magnetic stage presence. Obviously more comfortable in the role than the ABT ballerinas I’ve seen assay it, Núñez, who debuted with ABT in the role two nights earlier, brings to it the same technical facility and engaging characterization as Cojocaru. She dances with both radiance and obvious heart.

What was particularly remarkable was the nuance Núñez brought not only to the characterization (which as a veteran in the role one would expect) but also to Ashton’s choreography. This isn’t easy choreography – which is part of the reason the ballet looks so fussy – but she played with it brilliantly, a combination of eye-popping footwork and wonderful time-stretching that demonstrated facility from every core. And with the character of Cinderella she radiates warmth.  ABT has had more than its share of guest artists in recent years, but Núñez is one I’d like to see more.

Her Prince, James Whiteside, delivered a fine performance as well. Although his characterization is still not fully developed, for this role, it doesn’t really need to be. The Prince is…princely, but that’s about it. Where Whiteside particularly excelled was in his thoroughly superb partnering, which was flawless in every way.

Three nights earlier, in her debut in this production (she danced Cinderella in ABT’s prior incarnation of the ballet, choreographed by James Kudelka), Stella Abrera, who obtained a long-overdue promotion to principal the previous night, did everything right, but couldn’t deliver the special sparkle and facility that Núñez did.  Her Prince, Joseph Gorak, is naturally princely to the core. His execution is always smooth as silk – nothing looks forced. And he had no difficulty lifting or parterning Abrera.

Act I has little dancing in it – it’s considerably more focused on posing and slap-schtick comedy.  What dancing it does have is limited to the Fairy Godmother and her four seasonal subsidiary fairies. Although I found fault with her execution last year, Veronika Part danced the Fairy Godmother flawlessly on Saturday. Devon Teuscher did a fine job with the role on Wednesday, but lacked Part’s fluidity. The ballerinas who danced the secondary fairies (these roles are all technical – there’s no acting dimension to them) were the same both nights. The choreography for The Fairy Spring is particularly wicked, but, as she did last year, Sarah Lane again delivered a knock-out performance both days. The other three – a luminous Stephanie Williams as The Fairy Summer, Luciana Paris as The Fairy Autumn (who achieved a well-deserved promotion to soloist), and an appropriately icy April Giangeruso as The Fairy Winter – delivered very fine portrayals as well, but none of these roles is as viciously complex as that for The Fairy Spring.

As the Stepsisters, Thomas Forster (who also achieved a long overdue promotion) and Kenneth Easter have grown in their roles from last year, and were legitimately hilarious. On Wednesday, I saw Sean Stewart and Duncan Lyle in these roles for the first time. Although they executed well, they were not nearly as comically polished as Forster and Easter. Craig Salstein repeated his clean-as-a-whistle portrayal of the Jester, and Gabe Stone Shayer delivered a more child-like but promising interpretation on Wednesday.

The corps dancers in Cinderella are relatively anonymous, but one consistently stood out. By her acting (in addition to her crystalline execution) Katherine Williams creates roles where none exist. When the corps is supposed to register concern, or delight, or any other emotion, her face visibly registers the emotion in a way that is unique, but that doesn’t detract from the more routine responses in the faces of others. She deserves more opportunities than she gets.

A few final thoughts on the season

In addition to Núñez’s Cinderella, highlights of ABT’s 2015 Met season include Hee Seo’s extraordinary Juliet (her third opportunity in one week) and Lane’s second Aurora. Aside from her technical brilliance executing Ratmansky’s fiendish choreography while remaining in character as a 16 year old, she avoided disaster when her shoe caught the edge of the train of the Queen’s oversized gown in mid post-poison ‘mad scene’, causing her to fall to the stage floor. Instead of looking flustered, she wove it into the choreography and characterization so skillfully that few noticed.

Gillian Murphy is a superb technician, and demonstrated this throughout the year. At the beginning of the season, her stunning Hagar in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire showed a different, though equally extraordinary light. While not originally scheduled, Abrera delivered a wonderful Giselle, and Steven McRae a fine Romeo in his debut with ABT. Herman Cornejo danced a glorious Solor, and Marcelo Gomes, as usual, excelled in whatever he was assigned, and remains the company’s most valuable dancer.

Following her fine debut as the Cowgirl in Rodeo, a promising Juliet, and equally promising but technically deficient Odette/Odile, Misty Copeland was rewarded with her anticipated promotion to principal dancer amid a publicity firestorm. Skylar Brandt and Cassandra Trenary continued to do outstanding work in their featured roles, and were promoted to soloist.

A number of dancers were sidelined by injury, but with the exception of Abrera’s Giselle, the replacement casting represented opportunities lost.

Leaving the company this year, in addition to retiring principal dancers Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera, and Xiomara Reyes, are retiring corps dancers Grant DeLong, Marian Butler, and Leann Underwood, as well as Luis Ribagorda and Eric Tamm, both of whom retired before the Met season began.