Enchantment in a Race Against the Clock

February 22, 2010
New York Times
Alastair Macaulay

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CHICAGO — What a pleasure it is to see an American ballet company dancing Frederick Ashton’s full-length “Cinderella.” The Joffrey Ballet, which acquired it a few years ago, has already toured it this season to Los Angeles and now is presenting it in Chicago, its home city. At each of the three performances I attended on Saturday and Sunday, you could hear both children and grown-ups laughing happily at its jokes, and cheering its conclusion. The Chicago friend, a painter, who came along on Saturday night, had never seen full-blown classical ballet before; he said afterward that he had found it the ideal introduction and would love to watch it again soon.

Still, I’d venture to say nobody loved these Chicago performances more than I. “Cinderella” — whose Prokofiev music, superbly romantic on the whole, has patches of sarcasm that can be disagreeable on first listening — is among the most rewardingly rewatchable and relistenable ballets ever made; and I am an addict. The comedy and pathos of the story, though vivid, are just this work’s top layer. When Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother introduces her to the world of classical dance, personified by four Season fairies and a corps de ballet of a dozen Stars, we move into a new realm of form, where Ashton’s wealth of vocabulary and luxurious style expand the whole stage world immensely.

Greater yet — denser, stranger — is the ballroom of Act II: you can analyze this scene at length in terms of Classicism, neo-Classicism and neo-Romanticism without coming to any end of its complexities. Some of the most irresistible steps here are danced by the male and female courtiers, drastically switching positions of foot and shoulder (left! right!) on successive beats. Even before Cinderella arrives, this is a dream world: the courtiers and Jester and Prince’s friends seem already privy to the particularly pointed vocabulary of steps that we first encountered with the Seasons and Stars. When these magical creatures enter, they seem not anomalous but the perfect completion of this scene’s fantasy. Or rather they seem the perfect prelude to a completion that materializes with Cinderella herself. Her slow entrance down the palace staircase on point, as if floating, won applause at some of these Chicago performances.

Next, the Prince pursues her in a questlike duet framed by the 12 Stars. Arranged on three sides of the ballroom, they at once fragment. No Star dances the same way as her neighbor; the 12 of them move in four different directions at once, yet none actually travel. Seconds later, however, they reform as the four-deep triple-fanlike rows through which Cinderella eludes the Prince.

Later on, as the scene approaches midnight, the stage becomes tight, action-packed, a near-claustrophobic marvel of deliberately confined space and time, with dancers marking the beat powerfully and only Cinderella seeming to ride it heedlessly. And the greatest and most chilling of Ashton’s many inventions are the strokes of doom that arrive at the nightmare hour. Courtiers, Stars and Seasons all fuse into an impersonal machine, the workings of a giant clock in which Cinderella finds herself trapped. She is barred by one wall after another, but behind each one the court’s jester pops up as if he had turned into this clock’s taunting, implacable cuckoo. In few other ballets is the poetic drama of ballet so potent.

And it reaches a final climax in the pure-dance closing scene of Act III, after the Prince has found Cinderella in the kitchen and claimed her as his bride. Seasons, Stars and cavaliers dance a slowly unfolding choral ceremony in which Cinderella and the Prince perform a bridal adagio of immense grandeur and chivalry.

This Joffrey production of “Cinderella” began life with the Royal Ballet in 1987, when Ashton supervised it just nine months before his death. Its superb designs by David Walker still work admirably; the costumes’ color scheme and outline and the décor’s architecture are much better than those used in the Royal’s own current production. The magenta and plum of the courtiers’ ballroom attire are gorgeous; the ballroom has a superbly layered depth. It becomes transfigured when it returns in the ballet’s final scene, now with the rear wall absent so that we see a deepest-blue starlit sky behind. In this version no intermission occurs between Acts II and III; I like the brevity (the ballet runs two hours) and yet feel that the audience needs a break after the heady brew of the ballroom.

There are some rough edges in the Joffrey’s dancing here, but the company looks more enthusiastically engaged than I have ever seen it: the through-the-body juiciness of Ashton’s style seems to galvanize the dancers so that they bend, twist and arch from the waist outward along the lines he so rigorously required. It is famous that no interpreters of the Ugly Sisters can match the nonpareil clowning of their originators, Robert Helpmann and Ashton himself. (I caught them on my first view of the ballet in 1975.) But the two Joffrey casts led me back to the sheer glee these silly, vain frumps take in dancing itself, as well as to their sisterly loyalty in adversity. David Gombert (Saturday and Sunday afternoons) is so very proud of arranging her/his feet in fifth position to start his solo, so transported by each of the few steps he/she can remember; and Michael Smith is wonderfully expansive as he/she rushes across the stage (up and over a stool) to embrace and console Mr./Ms. Gombert when the Prince — inexplicably — turns out to have found his beloved in the person of Cinderella.

All three Cinderellas had individual merits: Yumelia Garcia (Saturday night), though generally using too many facial expressions (as if not trusting the choreography to speak for her), brought the most touching sense of memory to the Act III kitchen solo recalling the ball, and she and Victoria Jaiani (Sunday afternoon), an often mannered and unspontaneous dancer, brought strikingly assured rubato to the phrasing of the ballroom solo. Generally the Joffrey dancers have unrelaxed faces, with overbright smiles; several mouths hang open.

Christine Rocas (Saturday afternoon) could smile less and find more seriousness in this heroine, and yet I hung on the charm of her every move in enchantment. She was also (on Saturday evening) a ravishingly sensuous Fairy Summer, as Ms. Jaiani (on Saturday afternoon) was a compellingly glacial yet fluent Fairy Winter. The performance, however, is carried not by individuals but by the company. Small roles — the Tailor, two Dressmakers, Shoemaker and Jeweler — all have their tiny dance moments and keen characterizations, here beamingly and sweetly delivered.