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A Perfect Fit

The National Ballet of Canada’s <i>Cinderella</i>

What a bonus! This season has seen two new productions of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella: the first, last October, courtesy of Montreal’s Les Grand Ballets Canadiens and the second this May, from Toronto’s National Ballet of Canada. The two Cinderellas are vivid illustrations of just how distinct the artistic visions of these companies, and the cities they inhabit, really are.

A radically contemporary approach in both movement and interpretation characterized Stijn Celis’ production at Les Grands. His Cinderella was decidedly adult fare, a tale told from the shrink’s couch. Delving into our memories of childhood, Celis found a family dynamic that was by turns comical, disturbing and even perverse. Yet despite the production’s gloomy, surreal atmosphere, the ballet offered a moving, emotionally realistic and sympathetic look at the trials (and the rare joys) of adult love.

Neuroses on display aren’t exactly the kid-friendly fare we expect from a Cinderella, but then Celis’ version was never intended for the younger set. Les Grands’ production was aimed at Montreal’s adult audience, in particular those who enjoy the city’s thriving and edgy contemporary dance scene.

For the more conventional Toronto, a less avant-garde Cinderella is in order. If you prefer a sunny retelling served up in fine classical style (one that lets you bring the kids and leave the Psych 101 textbook at home), James Kudelka aims to please. His Cinderella occupies the middle ground between Celis’ dark, psychoanalytic view and traditional versions of the tale: the story has a few twists, but it’s still recognizably the beloved tale, told through a medium that is solidly balletic.

It’s also a ravishingly gorgeous tale, thanks to set and costume designer David Boechler. The setting that he and Kudelka have devised for this production—1930s art deco Vienna—has something for everyone: adults who want something more sophisticated than a Disneyfied version and children who still want that bit of magic.

Both the sophistication and the magic are evident in Cinderella’s kitchen—the scene of most of the action in Act One—which Boechler has transformed into a cheerful homey space that bursts with colour. (Think Mary Engelbreit’s chipper greeting cards, which riff on the period’s cottage aesthetic.) Indeed, one of the big surprises of this production is how almost pleasant Cinderella’s situation seems to be. Sure, she’s got a lot of work to do, but the house where our heroine lives with her stepmother and stepsisters is one of middle-class comfort.

Even Cinderella’s stepmother doesn’t seem all that bad. The old bat (played superbly by Victoria Bertram) is simply a lush who spends her days stumbling around in a marabou-trimmed robe, rooting out her hidden bottles and flasks. While she has social ambitions for her daughters, in the end (despite her protests at Cinderella’s wedding) nothing will come between her and her booze and smokes.

As for her daughters, these girls desperately need some savoir faire, poise and fashion sense. One is a would-be society glamourpuss, the other an insecure thing who can’t see past the tip of her nose without her ridiculously oversized glasses. To their rescue come a dressmaker, a makeup artist, a dancing instructor and two escorts—unfortunately all about as second-rate as their clients.

Cinderella, though neglected by her stepfamily, does get some help of her own from her fairy godmother, a turn-of-the-century dowager who marshals a bevy of garden creatures (led by Blossom, Petal, Moss and Twig) to dress the future princess in a floral-inspired pastel confection for the ball.

And what a ball. Boechler wows again, creating a scene right out of an Erté print. Society ladies vamp in elegant black with platinum accents (in contrast to the stepsisters’ loud black-and-white wannabe couture) as a photojournalist snaps pictures of the glitterati.

With the paparazzi skulking around and the smugness of oversophistication in the air, it’s no wonder the longed-for Prince is reluctant to appear. Nor is it a surprise that after fighting off the boy-crazy advances of the gauche stepsisters, he is drawn to the demure Cinderella in her environmentally friendly threads. For the hero and heroine’s meeting, Kudelka has devised an inspired pas de deux in which the two lovers touch only in the final moments. But no sooner do these two get together than the clock strikes midnight and the spell is broken.

For Act Three, Kudelka has chosen to retain the frequently omitted “around the world” sequence. The Prince, with Cinderella’s shoe in hand and his officers in tow, begins the search for his elusive love in the most natural of places—a shoe store—but soon he is heading off to all four corners of the globe. Along the way, he encounters an Inuit woman, a flamenco dancer, a Dutch girl, an Indian temple dancer and several New Woman period types, including an Amelia Earhartesque aviator and a Jantzen bathing beauty complete with enormous beach ball. Unable to find his girl, the Prince even desperately considers (in a wickedly politically incorrect moment) an amputee. But all ends well when he finally returns home and searches what seems the most unlikely of homes for a future princess: the bourgeois suburbs of his own city. After the couple reunites, they celebrate with a tasteful, low-key afternoon wedding in Cinderella’s beloved garden.

Although Cinderella does occasionally succumb to despair, overall the general feel of the production is quite upbeat. There are only a few dark (or, perhaps more accurately, creepy) moments. Near the beginning, midget puppetlike creatures emerge from the kitchen hearth to enact Cinderella’s dream of marriage, and later, in the garden scene, twelve pumpkin-heads attired in tuxes and tails warn of the midnight curfew while performing a grotesque dance reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Nightmare before Christmas.

The displays of magic—for children, always the highlight of Cinderella—are provided by the fairy godmother: with a wave of her wand, she repairs a broken bowl, changes the setting from the kitchen to the garden and conjures up a flying pumpkin for Cinderella’s spectacular entrance to the ball. The best “magic,” though, is Kudelka’s skill as a storyteller and choreographer. The tale is successfully told entirely through movement and without any mime. And although the ballet is quite long, the pace slackens only during the “exotic” dances of the “around the world” sequence.

In my review of Les Grands’ production, I noted that Prokofiev’s score for Cinderella was not as successful as his Romeo and Juliet. After sitting through several performances of the two productions, I am beginning to think that the score has more to offer than I initially thought. Part of the problem, I believed, was that the score was simply too long (it clocks in at about two hours without intermissions) for the story being told and the dramatic possibilities that it offered. Celis apparently agreed: he cut and compressed Prokofiev’s three acts into two. This made sense, especially for Les Grands, which has fewer dancers and resources than the National. Kudelka, however, preserved the three acts and made only minor cuts. Good move. A full-length Cinderella is a wonderful showcase for the National’s many accomplished dancers.

Kudelka rises to the occasion, offering up serious ballet choreography that really puts the dancers through their paces. Choreographing mainly in a classical style and technique, Kudelka finds new and interesting ways of using the pointe shoe, and doesn’t hesitate to challenge his dancers. Take just one example from the garden scene, which uses a full corps de ballet and four soloists: pirouettes take off and land from feet en pointe, with plenty of fleet filigree footwork in between. Both casts I saw not only rose to the challenge, but excelled. The National’s men also got a workout, especially those portraying the Prince and his four officers. The matinee’s cast was a little shaky, but the evening performers were more than able to cope with the demanding choreography.

But it was the stepsisters—of both casts—who nearly stole the show. Jennifer Fournier and Stephanie Hutchison (in the matinee) and Rebekah Rimsay and Lise-Marie Jourdain (in the evening performance) used their pointes to convey both stabbing bitchiness and goofy awkwardness.

As for Cinderella herself, I saw two of the three dancers cast in this production: Heather Ogden and Greta Hodgkinson. Ogden is a will-o’-the-wisp, with a refined technique as light and airy as the chiffon on her body. Without question, she possesses the prettiness and sweet demeanour we expect of Cinderella. Hodgkinson is larger in stature and is more my idea of the Swan Queen, the regal ballerina type. Yet I found her Cinderella not only convincing but also more moving. In her interpretation, she discovered an undercurrent of strength in the character and made the most of the comic and pathetic moments that Kudelka provided.

Once again, Hodgkinson demonstrated why she is one of this country’s best dancers. For me, one of the best things about moving to Canada from the US has been the opportunity to see this great dancer. Watching Hodgkinson perform, I realized one reason for my fascination is the breathtaking scale of her movement. This, I think, is what Arlene Croce, a former dance critic for the New Yorker, was rhapsodizing about thirty years ago, when she watched New York City Ballet’s Suzanne Farrell. With ballerinas like Farrell and Hodgkinson (who are in other respects quite different), an arabesque or a développé is an event in itself. They possess a rare daring and an ability to devour space with aplomb and intelligence.

Hodgkinson, like so many of the other dancers at the National Ballet of Canada, is a product of the company’s school. Obviously, something good has been going on in Toronto for some time now. And with a talented choreographer like Kudelka at the helm, this company is destined for even more success. In its new Cinderella, the National Ballet has a production that’s sure to delight audiences for years to come and may even rival The Nutcracker as a family favourite. Kudelka has shown once again that classical ballet is alive and well in Toronto.

The National Ballet of Canada’s Cinderella returns for four encore performances on April 23 and 24, 2005.
For more about Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal’s Cinderella, check out “Leap of Faith” and “Cinderella Grows Up” in the Dance Scene archives