People seem to have really loved or loathed American Ballet Theatre’s production of James Kudelka’s Cinderella this season. Based on the evening performance on Saturday, June 25th, I’m on the fence (which probably contributed to the lateness of this review). Overall, I liked it less than I had in previous years, but some of the things I DID like were things that had been missing in those past viewings.
The Prokofiev score and the set design by David Boechler were, as always, fantastic. I particularly love the Act III search design which, though mostly a bare stage, just by changing the lighting (designed by Christopher Dennis), the searching Prince and his officers travel through the clouds, to snow and ice, to the seaside and to the swarthy climates of India or Spain. Boechler’s 1920’s inspired costume design is generally successful as well – though the stepmother’s Miss Hannigan-esque robe and the taller stepsister’s black and white ball gown in Act II both look rather cheap compared to all the others. (I also really dislike the use of men dancing in tuxedos with pumpkin heads to indicate the hours of the clock – it’s just plain creepy – as is the opening dream sequence where people in masks on their knees come out of the fireplace and interact with Cinderella. Surely there’s a better way of showing she dreams of love and a better life than this very confusing scene, which in four viewings still baffles me).
But now to the dancing. Although this season, I made a deliberate effort to see different casts than in past years, for Cinderella I decided on a repeat viewing of Julie Kent in the title role. I’d also seen the wonderful Stella Abrera with Gillaume Côté (in 1997 I think), but since Abrera was (infuriatingly) only cast to dance the Wednesday matinee I was unable to get away from work. I really like Kent in this role – she’s appropriately wistful and dreamy in her rags in the Acts I and III kitchen scenes, and doesn’t overact. Kudelka’s Act II and III pas de deux also have a LOT of lifts and what look to be difficult transitions. As in Lady of the Camellias, Kent handled these elements expertly and showed just how strong she still is. To make Kudelka’s choreography work, I think it requires a dancer who really lets go, which is why Kent and Abrera are both beautiful in the role (and why I still haven’t been able to bring myself to sample Gillian Murphy’s version – I prefer her so much more in ballets like Pillar of Fire or Fall River Legend where her strength and sometimes lack of fluidity are crucial).
Kent’s performance was enhanced, of course, by the partnering by the incomparable Marcelo Gomes. Gomes’ performances throughout this Met season have been some of the best I have ever seen. By anyone. In past years, I remember Prince Charming, barely, as being the blandest storybook prince in ABT’s repertory and just a necessary element to Cinderella’s story. I may have actually seen Gomes in the role opposite Kent back in 2006 or 2007, but the way he has developed his acting over the past four or five years really made this a different experience. Now, for me, the Prince is a real man – both in the Act II ballroom and throughout Act III. His interaction with Isadora Loyola as the Spanish/Flamenco lady in Act III was particularly fantastic – for a second I almost thought he’d abandon his search for Cinderella and run off to tango or salsa with Loyola. As always, Gomes’ jumps and turns and port de bras were beautiful and committed, but it was his partnering here that really sticks out in my memory. As one of the dancers said to me recently when I was asking about the difficult lifts in Act III, “Marcelo just decides to make them work”. Kudelka’s choreography is sometimes awkward, but Gomes did his best not to let us know. He raised Kent into a lifted arabesque, holding her by one leg, and releases her from another lift via a double turn, both so quickly that the lifts seemed a natural part of the dance, of the emotion. Other than maybe Roberto Bolle partnering Alessandra Ferri in her final Manon and Romeo and Juliet, I have never seen anyone other than Gomes who so transports me into the love story during a pas de deux with a lot of lifts. (Though I suspect in a year or two Jared Matthews will have that skill as well – he’s already quite on his way).
What didn’t work for me as well in this production as in past years was the ensemble cast. Individually, there were many excellent performances, but there was still something missing. For example, Simone Messmer was fantastic as the taller stepsister. She oozed glamour and attitude around the stage, like I’d seen Carmen Corella do in the past. Maria Riccetto was adorable and very funny as the smaller stepsister. And she executed the choreography perfectly. But maybe because I continue to find her dancing somehow “small”, she didn’t come through quite as loudly as Marian Butler had in this role in past years. Similarly, Julio Bragado-Young and Roman Zhurbin were terrific as their escorts, but didn’t stand out comically as Bragado-Young had when I had seen him with Craig Salstein and Marian Butler. I think overall the casting didn’t quite fit together somehow – an element of chemistry was missing for me.
As the four officer friends of the Prince, Eric Tamm, Roddy Doble, Alexei Agoudine and Joseph Phillips did a good job. Their jumps were generally in unison and clean. (Agoudine’s grand jetés, though, were a bit lower and slower than the others.) I was pleasantly surprised by Roddy Doble (a last minute substitute for Alex Hammoudi) who has really been coming through this season with strong presence and solid dancing. I thought of all the officers he grabbed most of my attention. Eric Tamm also had some beautiful moments.
As the garden fairies, Sarah Lane, Marian Butler, Stella Abrera and Kristi Boone were each very good in their solos. However, I think Butler and Boone are much better suited to the stepsister roles than these more classical fairies, especially when dancing next to the twinkling Lane and romantic Abrera. Perhaps if Butler and Boone had been paired with dancers more similar in style and look, like maybe Gemma Bond or Luciana Paris, I would have liked them better here. It also bothered me that Abrera was relegated to dancing the small role of Moss at all given that she is capable of so much more.
A small mention also needs to go to all the Ladies “with or without shoes” in Act III – they were all terrific. Additional mentions go to Nicole Graniero whom I was thrilled to see out on the stage after being sidelined by injury and who was flutteringly lovely as one of the garden creatures – and to apprentice Brittany DeGrofft, whom I was able to pick out quickly in the ballroom scene in Act II. I’ve said it before, but DeGrofft has more presence on stage already than most of the corps, and looked fantastic in the feathery headpiece they gave her. Her long legs also seemed to fly and extend more than most without looking out of synch from the others. (My friend even pointed her out to ask who she was).
Two of my friends loved Saturday’s performance and another fundamentally disliked it and thought there wasn’t a lot going on. I don’t feel strongly either way really. I don’t know whether it’s because the cast didn’t seem to fit together for me as it had in past years or whether I’m just older and a little wiser in my ballet appreciation, but it left me a little cold. It was almost as if the casting made it seem like this Cinderella took pages from the same story told by different authors, different illustrators. After the highs from the Vishneva/Gomes Giselle and the various casts of The Bright Stream earlier in the season, Cinderella just didn’t measure up. (It was, though, worlds better than the mess of ABT’s mime-tastic Coppelia – other than certain already reviewed individual performances).
The NY Times slideshow of the production (starring Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg) does not do the art design (or the dancers, for that matter) any justice. In fact, I haven’t seen any photos that really show the set – maybe it’s a conscious choice to allow the audience to be surprised at how beautiful it really is?