American Ballet Theater’s Cinderella

BEFORE ALL ELSE: ABT’s season is coming to a close this week with Swan Lake. Anyone who’s seen Black Swan owes to himself to see the ballet that inspired it.

The other day I went to see American Ballet Theater’s production of Cinderella.1 It was a far departure from New York City Ballet for a few reasons: it was staged in the Metropolitan Opera space, which meant I was sitting in the Family Circle (read: the cheap seats)2,3 and, more to the point, it was much more narrative than the Balanchine I’ve been seeing recently (previous posts have described pieces set to the four humors of ancient medicine and tennis matches between feuding Elizabethan monarchs).

Balanchine’s Black and White pieces, which I wrote about last time, were more modern. They were stripped down to the essentials and were deliberately weird and stark. There was something refreshing about it, even if it was self-consciously artistic. ABT, from what I understand, is all about the trappings: costumes, set decoration, plots. In a way it’s easier to approach because there was much more to hang on to as a viewer, even if the dance doesn’t always come front and center.

The ballet at hand, Cinderella, was a pretty solidly middlebrow affair: recognizable composer (Prokofiev) telling a classic story with nothing too weird or jarring in it.4 The choreographer could depend on the audience to recognize the story and to appreciate the winks and nudges he gave the audience.

Most of those winks and nudges came from the superficial change of setting. The dress, some of the characters, and props come more from golden age Hollywood than they do from the mythic, medieval period Cinderella usually gets. It reminded me of Shrek; keep the core story intact, but change some of the trappings to include some in-jokes for the grown-ups who have to come with the kids. The intent is to be disarming, but if the goal of art is to communicate something sublime, or which touches one’s inmost being, I’m not sure if this take on Cinderella could have succeeded. That being said, it was entertaining and definitely had some high points.

The first scene took place inside a cottage that was all fairytale: elongated surfaces, impossibly cluttered space. But when the evil step sisters emerge they were dressed with a sort of would-be precode Hollywood glamor, one of them in sheeny, pink, wide legged pants.5 The stepmother wore what I think was a smoking jacket printed in technicolor red/orange leopard print that covered her feet as she moved (never mind that it’s a ballet and we’re supposed to see the movements of their bodies), and who strutted around the stage, stopping mostly to mix herself drinks.

Things opened up when Cinderella retreated to her garden and was outfitted for the ball by what I call (with no derision) gentle woodland spirits: Blossom, Petal, Moss, and Twig. The necessities of plot here emphasized the grace and movement of the dance itself; each spirit had her moment, Cinderella rose to accept her gift, and eventually sat to receive the next visitor. I thought Stella Abrera as Moss was particular notable. The mythological setting carried most of the way through to the end, when the head witch/fairy godmother called out a coterie of minions with jack o’lanterns for heads. They circled around Cinderella and popped up one by one to show that she had to be in bed by midnight (they didn’t really pop up in time, but I got the idea anyway).

The ball itself was fairly straightforward. The male dancers make their first appearance along with Prince Charming, whom Mario Gomes dances with definite youthful ardor.6 The Prince’s guard expresses its purpose (to keep social climbers like the stepsisters away, especially as they get tipsier). The sort of twenties mish mash continued, however, with the emergence of a photographer; this is a gala event, I guess, and the tabloids must be fed.7 Cinderella and the Prince meet, fall in love, and then pumpkin headed men spirit her away.8

The third act opens with the prince’s search; he looks for his beloved among flamenco dancers (not likely, given that the fated pair danced ballet when they met), Amelia Earhart (weirdly), and a woman whom I think is supposed to be a geisha, all, of course to no avail. Meanwhile we see Cinderella in her house (now a bit neater, though no less fantasmagoric), where there was some more interesting stuff going on. She’s kept her one glass slipper, and as she moves around she takes graceful ballet steps with her slippered foot and normal regular-person steps with her bare foot. She wants a life of poetry in motion, but one half is still stuck in prose.

Eventually the Prince arrives to check on the women of his own realm (or polity or newspaper empire or whatever). And, of course, he finds Cinderella, though not after some more glass slipper antics from the sisters. Eventually the two are married in a lovely coda, and the Prince sternly sends the photographer away.

Even after all those criticisms, I was happy when I left the theater. Having seen a few things by Balanchine I was used to choreographers using classic ballet moves as a vehicle for ideas about movement. There was no story to distract, and Balanchine could look for the art in the movement alone; dance for dance’s sake. Here was a different beast; the ballet moves were a vehicle for characterization, which supported a larger story, which was ostensibly a vehicle for artistic vision of the choreographer. Even if the production didn’t bring that tingle down the spine when you know you are seeing something great, it was going for something different and no less appealing than Balanchine’s target.9

1Yes, I, an unmarried (but attached), heterosexual man, went to see a children’s ballet, by myself. And it was awesome.

2And for Balanchine’s ballets sitting high up is not so much a problem; apparently the higher seats are better for appreciating certain aspects of his choreography. Sitting in the upper deck, so to speak, did let me notice that some of the dancers were out of sync in Cinderella.

3A note about the name “Family Circle;” it suggests a place that families looking for an economical way to enjoy the ballet can afford to bring their children, and a portion of the audience is made up by upwardly mobile families hoping that the familiar story will interest the kids in high art.1 The unfortunate result is that there are a lot of bored kids being unsuccessfully encouraged to follow the tiny moving figures waaaaay down on the stage. It’s not that I don’t think kids should go to the ballet—they should—but currying their interest is tough enough given that parents don’t get much chance to do it. Taking them to the upper deck of an opera hall when they’re used to IMAX movies may be a losing battle. I wonder if ABT or NYCB offer closer seats for cheap that could allow a child to be taken in and overwhelmed but the action onstage.2

1 At least on Thursday, such families actually made up only a small percentage of the people sitting in the Family Circle; most of us were either older (as in retirement age) or pairs of young women; I counted just one couple around my age.

2 The last time I went to see a ballet with a kid friendly rep was The Nutcracker in San Francisco around Christmas of ’07; the performance space was much more intimate, and the kids in the audience were much more engaged. At the time I didn’t take too kind a view of them, as they constantly ask their parents the questions in the same tone they use when asking their pets will be able to come back and visit from puppy heaven.1 If that sounds uncharitable, it was, and my enjoyment was much ruined for my curmudgeonliness. What was I expecting, seeing The Nutcracker around Christmas? Did I even bother looking at the movement or choreography? I left with more memories of the kids around me than of the ballet itself, which may just have been the easiest way to approach the experience: talk about the setting rather than the art itself. Looking back it’s rather like going to the Louvre and coming back with notes about the flooring, or what the other tourists were wearing, or telling someone that you read something interesting in the Huffington Post: the medium undermines the message.

1 The exact questions went along the lines of “Did he poke him?,” “is da mouse dead?” and so on.

4And this begged the question, at least it did of me, When was the last time someone was shocked at the ballet? Or at a performance of classical music? People walked out of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto #2 saying that cats caterwauling on a roof sounded better; The Rite of Spring caused an out-and-out riot1. It’s my feeling that if ballet, and dance as a whole, aren’t dangerous, shocking, or inarguably beautiful by the current standards, they are going through a fallow period.

Of course I may think this only because I am a complete neophyte, and in twenty years perhaps I’ll be ready to riot when someone shows me something different. Or maybe I don’t find the new stuff because the cultural gatekeepers (I’m looking at you, Alistair Macaulay of the Times!) are so enamored of the game changers of their youth that they aren’t looking at what is happening now. Or maybe there just isn’t that much happening now—maybe history or the muse or whatever just isn’t touching many dancer-choreographer-artists at the moment, in which case all we can do is carry the torch and wait for the next golden age or iconoclast. But if every artistic development comes from someone who breaks the rules, I wonder how they’ll do this next; we are so used to being challenged that we accept everything, and how can an artist break the rules when there are none? And is there a solution to this problem? Reinstating rules? Isn’t that censorship, a sort of “retreat to move forward”?2

1 Wikipedia also has a list of classical music riots,1 the most recent of which was caused by a performance of Four Organs by Steve Reich at Carnegie Hall in 1973. To spare you the effort of a search, I’ll sum it up for you: the audience started jeering, booing, and applauding (in an attempt to get the musicians to stop early). One article relates that a woman came up to the stage and banged her head on it, saying “Stop, stop, I confess.” Apparently the piece is a long dissection of a single chord2 that has been used by Debussy and Thelonious Monk, presumably to less antagonistic effect.

1 According to Wikipedia, “The usual respectful and sedate manner of classical music audiences means that any sort of rough behavior, ranging from catcalls to shoving, can be seen as a comparative ‘riot’;” by contrast, The Rite of Spring caused fistfights in the audience, though the company did manage to get through the whole piece.

2 A dominant eleventh, in case you were wondering.

2 I cribbed that from an episode of 30 Rock; hopefully they don’t sue me for the massive income this site generates.

5I should say that the stepsisters, Simone Messmer and Maria Riccetto had more room to charm the audience thanks to the changes in the story; they were more comic relief than evil, and they were good at it. The plot of the story involves the sisters’ preparations for the ball, during which they are fitted for new outfits and given dancing lessons; it’s a delicate thing to dance as though you were learning to dance for the first time, and they pulled it off.

6Textual note: I initially misspelled youthful as “youtful,” as in Joe Pesci’s pronunciation of “youts” in My Cousin Vinny. Maybe it’s the South American look (for shame, I know), but the sort of ardor1 Gomes communicated did sort of remind me of youthful ambition associated with young men in movies like Goodfellas.

1 As for me using such a hackneyed phrase as “youthful ardor,” what can I say? I’m halfway through my second translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in as many months. (post forthcoming).

7I suppose you could argue that the photographer helped establish a subtext about Cinderella being an ancestor of modern celebrity culture, but I wouldn’t have bought it then and I don’t buy it in retrospect.

8I’d love to see a thesis about the manifestation of Terpsichore in the fear of autumn squash.

9I was also glad because Prokofiev’s music made more sense to me in context. I’ve listened to a few other bits of his music (mostly the Lieutenant Kije Suite, and a bit of the monumental, impersonal passion of his Romeo and Juliet ), and, well, they’re all sort of over the top, and not in that Rachmaninovian way where the brooding viscount is actually wondering if his musical theories can balm his heartache or part the Red Sea (or seduce Marilyn Monroe), but in a way that is naïve1 and maybe prone to the belief that a united people can create a perfect society, so long as the opposition shuts up and does what it’s told. His music has something nobility in it, but he’s not the prince so much as the royal cousin who went off to college and fell in with some dangerously liberal and/or autocratic types. All that being said, the combination of the ballet and his Cinderella was affecting, like one of Dostoevsky’s scenes of a mouthpiece for suicide playing with a small child.2

1 A description of a Lee Morgan album always summed up a lot of my impression of Prokofiev: “… [Candy has] an attractive frosting of arrogance that doesn’t quite disguise a callow romanticism…” (Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, Richard Cook and Brian Morton, 8th ed., 2006, pg. 944).

2 Of course I’m thinking of Kirillov from Demons; see page 232 of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s 1994 Vintage edition for the full description. It’s terrifically convenient that I should reference Dostoevsky here as he’s an artist who can turn the trashy and prosaic into high art.

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