Register Saturday | March 17 | 2018

Leap of Faith

Choreographer Stijn Celis remakes the Cinderella myth

On October 16, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal will premiere a new production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella—Celle qui, dit-on, aurait perdu sa chaussure (Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts). Why another Cinderella? Well, why not?

This so-called children’s story has deep roots in the human imagination: the first recorded instance of the tale dates back to ninth-century China. In the last thousand years or so, according to scholars, there have been more than seven hundred renderings of the trials, tribulations and eventual triumph of the downtrodden girl. The version every Western schoolchild knows is an adaptation of the traditional French folk tale by author Charles Perrault and his son Pierre, set down in 1697 in the original Mother Goose’s Tales. Whether in the greatest works of literature (Pride and Prejudice, The Portrait of a Lady) or in contemporary celebrity culture (Maid in Manhattan, Pretty Woman), we can’t seem to get enough of Cinderella.

North Americans probably cherish her story even more dearly than Europeans. In spite of—or perhaps because of—Cinderella’s rise to aristocracy, we relish the tale of Cindy from the Block making good. Like our immigrant ancestors, we believe that we too can transcend our humble origins, regardless of class barriers. Actresses like J-Lo and “J-Ro” work the Cinderella myth just as skillfully off-screen as on, happily protesting “I’m still a hippie chick at heart” while holding court for the paparazzi. Today’s Cinderella is just like you and me: poverty, a dysfunctional family, even Harry Winston diamonds can’t keep her down. Prokofiev got to the heart of the matter when he said that Cinderella is “a real person, feeling, experiencing and moving among us.” To a certain extent, she embodies the North American dream.

In ballet, however, the best-known Cinderella emerged from a most unlikely place—Stalin’s Soviet Union. After the October Revolution, the question of what to do with the Tsar’s beloved ballet companies preoccupied the new cultural commissars. In the 1920s, Communist policy dictated that ballets must have that proletarian glow, but detractors still disputed whether ballet was needed at all. By the 1930s, though, those in favour of preserving Russia’s strong classical heritage (as established by the French émigré Marius Petipa) had won out. As classics like The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Giselle continued to be revamped and performed, a new ballet form was born: “drama ballet,” in which acting and virtuosic dancing were paramount. For Cinderella, Prokofiev drew on this new form—so successfully mastered in his Romeo and Juliet—while looking back to the age of Petipa and Tchaikovsky. Accordingly, unlike earlier ballets in which he had flirted with modernism and drawn inspiration from Soviet Constructivism, Cinderella contains many classical dance elements: pas de deux, adagios, waltzes, variations, a gavotte and a mazurka.

Prokofiev’s Cinderella premiered at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1945 to popular and critical acclaim. The West soon had its own classic: in 1948, Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed his famous Cinderella to Prokofiev’s score for the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet. In the years since, there have been a few new productions here and there, one of the more interesting versions by Rudolf Nureyev in 1986 for the Paris Opera Ballet. In Nureyev’s conception, Cinderella is an aspiring actress during the Depression and the golden age of film, and her fairy godmother—or godfather, rather—is a film producer played by Nureyev himself.

Now Montreal is about to have its own Cinderella. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens has commissioned Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis for the job. Last season, Celis treated Montreal audiences to his electrifying reinterpretation of Igor Stravinsky and Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces. In some ways, Les Noces (The Wedding) is an interesting prelude to Cinderella. Both ballets ostensibly treat the same theme, the coming together of a man and woman, but approach it in very different ways musically and conceptually.

According to Gradimir Pankov, the artistic director of Les Grands, who brought the piece to Montreal, Les Noces is about “the fear of marriage.” Prokofiev’s Cinderella is traditionally the opposite, filled with romantic longing, hope and eventual fulfillment. Celis, keeping to the ambivalent viewpoint of Les Noces, says that his Cinderella and prince still have the requisite happy ending but with a twist: “You can still debate whether it is happy or whether it is actually tragic. The borders are very thin.” For him, a “simple” rehash of the story is not worth telling.

Voted by critics in Ballett International as the outstanding young choreographer for 2001, Stijn Celis, thirty-nine, began his dancing career twenty years ago. He performed with numerous companies including the Cullberg Ballet, the Royal Ballet of Flanders, the Zurich Ballet and the Ballet du Grand Théâtre in Geneva, where he was discovered by Pankov, then the artistic director. At the age of thirty-two, Celis began to choreograph and since then has made ballets for the Cullberg Ballet, the Bern Ballet, the Ballet Mainz and others.

As a choreographer, Celis involves himself in more than just the steps. Feeling he needed more “backbone” for his pieces, in his early thirties Celis returned to school to study set design, an aspect of ballet he describes as a “passion.” He wanted to be able to think about performance, he says, “on a more conceptual and material level, something I couldn’t do with just my dancing background. If I had just relied on that, I would have choreographed much more in the line of the choreographers I had worked with.” One of those would be Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, whose psychologically driven “Solo for two” and “Appartement” were performed by Les Grands last season. Ek’s theatre background and sensibility combined with choreography is a quality Celis deeply admires. As for himself, Celis says, “At the moment, I’m very much more driven to see good theatre than dance.”

While developing Cinderella, Celis hired a dramaturge to help him manage his roles: “I gain some objectivity about what I do as a choreographer looking from the designer point of view.” The story sets the stage, so to speak, for the overall design, and because it has to come at an early point in production, Celis says, “I’m forced to build the context for the choreography, but knowing my choreographic state, I know what I need and what will challenge me.”

For Celis, one of his constant choreographic needs is to “show some kind of limitation or problem and allow the audience to perceive the beauty in that.” In Les Noces (with some help from costume designer Catherine Voeffray, who is on board again for Cinderella), the grooms, hampered by tuxedos, portrayed this quality ingeniously through intentionally awkward dancing, which mirrored their emotional discomfort and anxiety over the ritual of marriage. It is giving audiences this sort of emotional truth that engages Celis, not a Madison Avenue idea of “beautiful, sexy, twenty-first-century yuppie dancing,” as he puts it. Celis feels an audience can more easily relate to a “wounded or handicapped situation” than to the so-called “good life.”

Thus, Cinderella. Contrary to the idea that Cinderella is simply a child’s fairy tale, Celis sees this ballet as an opportunity to “tell an adult story.” He isn’t so interested in showing our heroine as a victim as in exploring how she and the other people in her life—father, stepmother and stepsisters, generally cast as one-dimensionally buffoonish or malevolent characters—are all victims of bad circumstances. He says sympathetically that, like Cinderella, they all have desires for a better life in society.

But in this day and age, after feminism and the sexual revolution, isn’t this story about a girl who rises in the world through marriage a tad out of date? According to Celis, Cinderella’s story “isn’t just a female thing.” (Remember Cinderfella—no, sorry, don’t—in which gawky Jerry Lewis is transformed into a hip, martini-drinking Rat Packer?) Celis argues that, while he certainly preserves the centrality of his heroine, he sees that “the need for love and to be taken care of is always there. I recognize it in men as well.”

In other words, what Celis is getting at is that, man or woman, we all wish on some level to liberate ourselves from the disappointing reality of our daily lives. One hears that desire swelling in Prokofiev’s sweeping waltzes, in which love seems to be at least one answer, however much a failure it proves time and again. “Maybe this time,” we whisper to ourselves in the dark as we watch Cinderella taking her leap of faith into her dream partner’s arms.