Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

Cinderella Grows Up

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Cinderella

The tale of Cinderella has been performed as a ballet since 1945, when the Bolshoi Ballet set it to music by Prokofiev. Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis, in a work commissioned by Montreal's Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, has now created an "adult" Cinderella. The new title-Celle qui, dit-on, aurait perdu sa chaussure (She who, they say, would have lost her shoe)-suggests the iconoclastic and revisionist eye Celis brings to the old standard. This Cinderella is mentally unhinged, dreams obsessively of her lost mother and has been beaten down by life. Celis' Cinderella succeeds, but heroine and ballet alike have issues.

The main difficulty lies in Prokofiev's score, which, as rich as it is, fails to reach the level of his masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev was looking back to the Petipa/Tchaikovsky era with his Cinderella--it is the most classical of his ballets--but it lacks the narrative and dramatic tidiness of, say, Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty. To keep audience members in their seats, Celis has cut the score from three to two acts, stripping it down to its livelier essentials. Likewise, the distractions of the traditional props and the countless fairies, pageboys and assorted cutesy creatures have been replaced with a few playfully symbolic objects and a cast limited to principal dancers and a couple of large ensembles. All the fairy dust has been swept away. This is not a Disney fantasyland of sanitized castles, but Sigmund Freud's murky, psychological terrain. Instead of a tasteful gossamer gown and sparkling slippers fit for a princess, Celis dresses his barefoot girl in a garish, noisy red dress. And in place of pumpkins, Celis substitutes a single orange.

Celis has said that he likes to work from a "handicapped or wounded situation," and his choreography does traffic in movements and postures that most would call awkward. Celis, though, doesn't pursue awkwardness for its own sake, or as a mere reaction to classical aesthetics (a tired response at this point in dance history). Nor does his choreography come off as a trite postmodern statement about the failure of human aspiration and ideals. Rather, I believe Celis aims to find an inherent beauty in our human ("all too human," as Nietzsche liked to add) condition. There is sympathy at work here even as our obsessions are being revealed and our pretensions lampooned.

The ballet begins with three flashes of light, metaphoric snapshots that show a mother, father and daughter standing as a unit, as if posing for a family portrait. Then the curtain rises to reveal the new dysfunctional reality: armoires half-submerged in the ground and other unrecognizable furniture not fit for human use. Perched high on one of these props, the father stares, entranced, into the aforementioned orange. The uncaring stepmother and her two daughters (all danced by men, in the tradition of Sir Frederick Ashton) set the tone and tempo of the household: the three enlist Cinderella and her father in their family compact with a grotesque dance in which all vainly try to keep in step with one another. The humpty-dump-dump choreography (shoulders up to ears, upper bodies slumped over, arms hanging limply at their sides) is both comical and saddening. Every now and then, Cinderella's ethereal mother bourrées into view, constantly en pointe, like some unattainable ideal. Here, she takes on the traditional role of the ghostly fairy godmother (always a benevolent stand-in for the mother anyway). The mother traditionally dies young in Cinderella, but in this updated version, one wonders if she is merely divorced or estranged from her husband. At a Saturday matinee performance I attended, I couldn't help but wonder what all the children in attendance made of this updated "love" story, adjusted to their parents' neuroses. Home sweet home?

As the stepmother, Steve Coutereel is particularly effective in his portrayal of a woman whose only talents in life appear to be manipulation and seduction (however unattractive she may be). In one bizarre vignette she defiles the memory of Cinderella's mother by rubbing the orange--a symbol for her predecessor--on her crotch in an orgasmic spasm. In another, she temporarily fools the prince into thinking that she is his lost love by using some of the old tricks that worked on Cinderella's father.

Ah, the prince. Celis' prince is an emotional complex, a battleground of social role versus individual desire. Dancer Mariusz Ostrowski is physically not the princely type (Andrey Leonovitch, the second-cast lead, suits the role better), but this discrepancy between dancer and stage role gives a poignant edge to Ostrowski's solid dancing and acting. This prince yearns for some alternative to the Armani-clad superficial jet set that surrounds him, waving little yellow flags in a parody of sycophantic applause.

What is new in Celis' spin on the character, however, is the prince's obsession with the perfect woman, represented here by the pair of satin pumps he carries around with him. The famous glass slippers in this version of the story are not gifts from a fairy godmother, but the Prince's own fetishized possessions, which he desperately wants someone to fill. He barely sees past them until Cinderella enters the scene. Her refreshingly inappropriate dress and bare feet attract him initially, but very quickly her ability to slip on his precious shoes and, after a few uncertain steps, walk like a society lady seems more important to him than anything else.

This prince, it turns out, is not Prince Charming. If he doesn't give up his Imelda Marcos obsession, Celis seems to be saying, then he may turn out like Cinderella's father, a wreck of a man who obsesses over the orange--aka his lost love--and neglects his daughter and new wife. (In the second act's interlude, the father chillingly sits alone on stage, methodically peeling an orange with a knife. Is this getting to the core of one's obsession?)

As one would expect, though, the ballet really belongs to Cinderella, particularly in Geneviève Guérard's touchingly vulnerable portrayal. There's something about Guérard that shimmers with emotional resonance. In other ballets, she has shown her ability to convey a wide range of feeling; in a character role like Cinderella, she brings a worn-out cliché to vibrant life. What is particularly surprisingly is the beauty that she gives off as she performs movements that would seem to obliterate any chance of beauty. She takes off for the ball with her skirt ruffs between her teeth; she runs in circles with ungainly outstretched arms; she bounds into the air in parallel, pas de chat-like jumps that should be graceless. But the result when performed by Guérard is pure exuberance.

The fashionistas at the ball are the opposite: they carry themselves in more sophisticated ways, but with ridiculous results. Celis is masterful in his handling of large ensembles, a talent he displayed last season in his version of Les Noces. Part of this success in portraying groupthink comes from his collaboration with costume designer Catherine Voeffray (who also worked with him on Les Noces). Voeffray's female fashion conformists wear high-heeled boots and muddy-coloured, clinging dresses padded in the derrière; her men, equally sombre pinstriped suits with padded shoulders. The exaggerated attire draws attention to an already exaggerated choreography. The women often preen with hands on hips, pushing their behinds out, cocking their heads to the side as they survey their prey (the prince) and the competition. The men likewise adapt poses of wary sophistication. Celis, nonetheless, isn't satisfied with mere voguing. More frequently than not, glamour turns awkward: elbows, knees and feet turn in; at one point, the ensemble dancers all land on their bums, scrambling on the floor. Dignity is in short supply here.

There are problems with Celis' narrative; for example, the transition from Cinderella's dream (brought on by a glass of orange juice) to her departure for the ball. In this case, though, the narrative confusion is excused by the humour of the dream: the stepmother and friendly stepsisters dancing gaily in orange frocks and the ensemble cast, in white tails and tuxes, playing golf in slow motion.

What most certainly does work is Celis' mature view of relationships. Our hero and heroine do not blissfully dance off into the sunset in an ecstatic pas de deux. (The leaps and lifts throughout their duets are tellingly low to the ground.) Instead, their dance of union begins with Cinderella--wounded and angered by the prince's earlier rejection--hurling one of his beloved slippers at his head. "Wake up," she seems to be saying. He does, and gives up on shoes completely, rolling up his pant legs and grasping her hands. At one point, he rests his head on her thigh; at another, she drapes herself backwards over his legs and catches her breath so audibly that all her conflicting emotions--grief, anger, fear, relief, joy--are momentarily released.

With uncertain steps, the two set off into the future. It's almost heartbreaking to watch. With the perspective that experience bestows, we (unlike the children at the Saturday matinee) know their story is far from over, but we still have hope it may turn out well.