National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre, Toronto
Over the weekend, I wrote about the National Ballet's conservative 65th season, which seems disproportionately geared toward the under-12 crowd. After attending Cinderella, which opened in Toronto on Saturday night, I realize that my numbers were a little off. Judging by the various jubilant six- and seven-year-olds with whom I chatted at intermission (and exempting the odd complaint about a missed bedtime) I think the bull's-eye demographic is about Grade 2.
James Kudelka's 2004 ballet is typically said to have choreographic nuances that make smart commentary on Prokofiev's complex score. To my eye, these nuances are modest. They consist of details such as as a repeated flourish at the end of a port de bras, using a flexed palm that adds a feeling of resistance. The detail works nicely when it gives Cinderella (danced by Sonia Rodriguez on Saturday; Emma Hawes on Sunday) an edge to the sense of her expanding desire, but it feels only like the beginning of a stylized vocabulary. It's unsatisfying as an end point, or as a unifying motif.
Another go-to sequence for choreographic discussion consists of the four fairies in Act 1 (Blossom: Jordana Daumec; Petal: Alexandra MacDonald/Chelsy Meiss; Moss: Tina Pereira/Jenna Savella; and Twig: Hannah Fischer/Kathryn Hosier). Moss begins her variation with a firebird-like run with stiffened neoclassical arms. Twig begins hers by crisscrossing her arms rapidly (think of an elegant air-traffic controller) then proceeding to dance mostly in turned-in, sixth position.
Later, in the Act 2 ball scene, we get some footwork that riffs on the jazz-age Charleston and staggered lifts that make for an appealing wave of motion. But to suggest that there's anything new, surprising or terribly interesting in any of this choreography would be an exaggeration. In terms of innovating, Kudelka has done little more than loosen some hips (the ball guests walk like slinking runway models en pointe), straighten some elbows and turn in some legs.
In some ways, Cinderella is as much a work of physical theatre as it is a ballet – or, at least, it frames a conversation about the differences between physical theatre and pantomime. The production is clearly meant to be high-comedy and, indeed, it's very funny when the humour is engendered by the choreography itself. It is less funny (and often not funny at all) when the humour supplements the dancing like a slapstick sideshow.
Most of the action around the stepsisters (Tanya Howard/Hannah Fischer and Rebekah Rimsay/Tiffany Mosher) falls into this latter category. Their characters are constructed through intentionally bad dancing – they stagger, trip, sweep their arms and legs into ungainly positions – and then a lot of exaggerated face-acting. It gets tiresome quickly and it's an approach that feels stuck in the past. Instead of creating the characters through a sculpted vocabulary of movement, letting the comedy come from an inventive use of the sisters' physical interaction, which could have been both visually interesting and more genuinely funny, he opted for corny laughs. Or maybe they're just laughs targeted at the school kids.
As counterpoint, a moment that worked beautifully was when the increasingly inebriated sisters performed penchée arabesques side by side at the ball. The humour here was embedded in the choreography – who would lose balance and nosedive into her cocktail first? It was an example of ballet being funny on its own terms, rather than devolving into pantomime.
There are other good examples of this kind of integrated choreography-comedy. At the countdown to midnight, Cinderella's garden sprites strike self-conscious poses downstage, each timed to the chime of the of clock. There's a Vogue-era Madonna quality to this slick drama, and the sudden juxtaposition of style made it feel as though the characters were ironically engaging with the stakes of the plot. I laughed aloud.
Then in Act 3, the strongest act on all counts, Selene Guerrero-Trujillo was hilarious as a lascivious flamenco dancer set on seducing Prince Charming. The humour emerged entirely from the dancing, with Guerrero-Trujillo thrusting the prince's face against her own and placing his hands on opportune parts of her body. Not for a moment did she have to telegraph her intentions with any exaggerated lusting; she only had to dance.
Act 3 also brought relief from the busy, ostentatious sets (designed by David Boechler) that plagued the earlier acts, introducing a streamlined minimalism that was kinder to adult eyes. A beautiful sense of motion was created by a backdrop of rolling clouds, upstaged by white-suited shoemakers lifting black umbrellas to the sky (an image redolent of paintings by René Magritte). A girl with a yellow beach ball floated through the shoemakers' arms, making a horizontal arc across the stage. Finally, there was space to think a little and poetic images to enjoy.
Cinderella had another saving grace on the Sunday matinee: second soloist Emma Hawes, who made her debut in the title role. Interestingly, Hawes's moving performance provided a natural counterpoint to all the heavy-handed exposition. She is an impressively embodied and truthful dancer, her richly expressive dancing speaks and she melds power with a distinct lightness of touch. Hawes is a strong actress on top of that – I have a feeling she'll keep pushing herself in that vein. I can imagine Cinderella's naivety posing a challenge to a millennial-aged ballerina, but Hawes was disarming and genuine. I particularly loved the final hearty laugh she shared with her prince as he laid his head on her lap, a sweetly symbolic tableau for happily ever after.
Of course, I'd rather an adaptation that broke fidelity with the plot and told me something new about Cinderella that ballet alone could tell me. But the six-year-olds around me looked pretty satisfied, so there's that.
Cinderella continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts until Nov. 20 (national.ballet.ca).