The Royal Ballet in Orange County
“Cinderella” and “Giselle”
By Rita Felciano
The Royal Ballet’s new production of Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” is either problematically splendid or splendidly problematic. Maybe both. The former can be laid at the feet of Wendy Ellis Somes and Christopher Carr, the team who signed for production and staging. The latter belongs to Frederick Ashton.
Some of the design’s awkwardness might relate to the sets not quite matching Orange County’s theater. They felt technologically so old fashioned that one almost expected to hear creaking stage machinery. It was most bothersome when the Fairy Godmother’s luminous night sky for a while looked like a misplaced drop cloth until poorly lit columns descended to frame the scene.
The monumental, impersonal quality in these designs somewhat undercut expectations for delicacy and evanescence in a fairy tale. It was almost as if the designers had listened to Prokofiev’s score, which is often dark and foreboding, and built the sets to match the music more than the choreography which is as comical and humanly-scaled as it is pathos-filled. The wood-paneled manor hall dwarfed its inhabitants. It did have a nice touch with a half-covered chandelier and mostly barren walls, showing traces of paintings that once had hung there. They suggested that this gloomy place previously had been more of a home.
The palace’s design, with several ascending layers of corridors and balustrades and a grand staircase served nicely for Cinderella’s star stuck entry. However, its brown color scheme and stretched Palladianisms struck a discord with the courtiers’ Watteau-inspired costumes. The design for the season’s dances worked best. Its changing pastoral scenery unfolded like pages in a pop up children’s book.
As for Ashton’s choreography, all one can say, what a gift it is. Never having seen “Cinderella” live, it was almost more than could be absorbed in one viewing. Its blend of humor—itself a mix of popular and sophisticated touches, all of them immaculately timed—and delicate sentiments ranging from the tragedy-tinged to the utterly romantic is simply masterful. Despite the fact that neither its fourth-cast Jaimie Tapper (Cinderella) and David Makhateli (the Prince) were ideally cast, the choreography is so musically detailed and richly layered that it simply could not be undercut by technically adequate—despite a couple of missteps by Makhateli—though somewhat stolid performances. First rate choreography shines through good-but-not-first-rate performances like sun through the fog.
Tapper’s best moment came in descending the grand staircase on point, delicately putting one foot after another, eyes wide open yet clearly thinking of herself in a dream state, and then simply bourreing downstage as if she could keep going for ever.
The accord between Alastair Marriott and Philip Mosley, in the two Step-Sisters parts, gave Ashton’s brilliant creations their due. Their musically timed lovingly nuanced performances shaped both the outrageous and pathetic aspects of the roles. Mosley, as the shy one, with his mincing little steps and just the barest of a swish, was particulary touching at the end. Still feeling Cinderella’s good bye kiss on her cheek, she slunk off into the wings with a “oh, well, so it goes” gesture. The head-bobbing manege with the oranges, in time with the music, was a brilliant idea, but to have the sisters come back to cross the stage, stepping only to the applause that Ashton knew this section would get, was inspired.
Another inspired idea: this Fairy God Mother is no dignified Lilac Fairy. There is wit and spunk, and a sense of playfulness and fun to this match maker’s pearly bourrees and lyrically embracing port de bras. Vannessa Palmer’s sissonne/ciseaux combination looked as if it were about to propel her into her natural domain, the air.
Natasha Oughtred, Isabel McMeekan, Deirdre Chapman and Christina Arestis danced Ashton’s magically detailed seasons. McMeekan’s brow-sweeping languour and Arestis’s ice-crackling imperiousness could not have been at more opposite poles.
It has been said that “Cinderella” is structurally flawed, but only if one expects Ashton to follow 19th century formats. The genius of this work is not only in the way Ashton used the conventions—both in terms of the language and the storytelling—but in the way he bent them for his own purposes. The ending, with the two lovers ascending the staircase into some kind of heaven of their own, gold dust falling on them, is pure fairy tale. No pas de deux was needed. This was a lovely, humanly scaled finale, in no small part because it was so simple and paid tribute to the girl Cinderella was and not the princess she has become.
It’s probably true that Cinderella’s delayed entrance in act two defocuses the narrative. But it also allowed Ashton to create a court ambience which is very much his own. Personally, for me this was the work’s biggest surprise. Ashton seemed to infuse these ballroom dances with a wildness of spirit that relates them as much to madcap Christmas revelries as to 19th century classicism. Often the decorous patterns were ever so slightly distorted with a foot lifted a little too high, a bow too low or a sweep of an arm too expansive. Some of Prokofiev’s dissonance-spiced music has a dark underbelly which was reflected in these almost carnavalesque dances in which everyone, not just Cinderella, has to meet a midnight deadline.
This court is not ruled by a prince, who really is quite a cipher, but as in the midwinter Lord of Misrule revelries of old, by the jester who commands and receives obeiance from his subjects. An athletically bouncy Tim Matiakis swept them on and off stage, almost like marionettes for which he held the strings. As the evening progressed, the dances seemed to become even less decorous, acquiring a quasi mechanical quality making that ghostly nightmare from which Cinderella but barely escaped, almost inevitable. No wonder that at the end of the act, the Jester spread his arms in a floor-hugging cambre and looked at us upside down if to say, this is what can happen if fools are allowed to rule the world.
So Ashton’s choice of putting the pas de deux on an empty stage made total sense. Love will triumph, but probably not at this kind of court. The choreography is inspired Cinderella, whose own variation had awakened her to the reality of being love, fully coming alive as the Prince floated her across the space, at one point almost wrapping her around his back. It looked almost like a jitterbug move. And then she took the initiative chaineing around him, like a planet that has found its star. At this moment the lovers look like figurines on a music box.
The opening night of the Royal’s “Giselle”, in Peter Wright’s production as staged by Christopher Carr, starred Miyako Yoshida and Federico Bonelli. Yoshida, an experienced dancer who has the role down pat, danced the first act just a little bit too routinely. An accomplished performer, she has a lovely technique—beautiful hops on point—but one missed in her the freshness of barely discovered love. Ironically, it’s in the second act where as Giselle’s ghost, Yoshida came alive. Just to watch her arms, at first lifelessly hanging gradually become animated gave one a sense that she had not moved them in a while. At the end of the pas de deux, she placed herself behind Albrecht, not in an arabesque, but a low attitude and simply inclined her head toward him. One got a beautiful sense that there was a live woman inside that pose, that almost but not quite managed to come out.
Bonelli is a long-limbed technically fine dancer but expressively limited. His Albrecht was an impetuous but also slightly spoiled young noble man. Bonelli seemed to perform this befuddled character more than to inhabit him. I did not get a sense that this love was the tragedy of his life.
The village dances showed the ensemble in fine mettle with the Royal’s fine upper body training complementing the elegant footwork. It made for refined village entertainments. A dance for Giselle and her friends used simple unison balances to great effect. The villagers’ pas de deux here is a pas de six with Marianela Nunez and Yohei Sasaki as the primary couple and separate variations for the other two men and women. Genesia Rosato’s assertive Berthe was complimented by a softly aristocratic Christina Arestis as Bathilde.
The production felt cramped, with the woods—they looked more like bamboos than trees—crowding in on the wooden hut that is Giselle’s abode and the lean to that serves as Loys’ hunting lodge. To have the villagers bring a grape harvest into this woodsy environment stretched credulity almost as much as the overly sumptuous robes designers always insist on putting on the Duke of Courland’s hunting party.
The second act felt even more constricted with uprooted trees, felled trunks and hanging greenery leaving very little space for the dancing. The traveling side to side arabesques, for instance, and the diagonal that sends Hilarion to this fate need more space to be effective. In this environment Zenaida Yanowsky’s authority felt limited. When she called on the wilis, instead of summoning them from the woods, she literally seemed to scoop them out of the earth. Chapman and Isabel McMeekan were her attendants.
Boris Gruzin conducted the Orange County’s Pacific Symphony.
Photos, both by Dee