A Ballet for All Seasons
The final performance of the Lincoln Center Festival’s all too brief Ashton festival was, to coin a phrase, an alloyed success. Ashton’s choreography was the real star, serenely classical yet intriguingly modern, very much in the manner of “Scènes de Ballet”. Indeed, the twelve stars with their sharp, flicky arms (softened by the dancers’ gracious épaulement) and miraculous formation (how on earth did Ashton combine twelve girls in so many different ways?) looked like cousins of "Scènes’" miraculous corps.
This was New York’s first (and I hope not the last) viewing of the new designs. Reports from London had not been positive, but the designs, by Toer van Schayk, were not nearly as bad as some recent Royal Ballet designs. (A far cry from the last “Sleeping Beauty” of dreadful memory.) Cinderella’s home is too large and unfocused for the detailed choreography, but the transformation scene is stunning, if a bit cumbersome. There was a great deal of noise for something supposedly so magical, but the starry sky for the fairy godmother’s solo was beautiful. The seasons got to dance their wonderful variations in what looked like a series of pop-up books designed by Watteau; absolutely exquisite. The ballroom scene had a very expansive perspective, and a fine roomy feel, though for some reason the designer thinks that night skies are orange. The finale, with the pair gently walking up the stairs to an infinity of happiness (this production went back to the original walking ending, rather than the glorious lift of the previous version) was only marred by fistfuls of extraneous gold glitter. Ashton’s choreography has enough genuine glitter; it doesn’t need a fake Hallmark card ending.
The costumes, too, kept the traditional shapes. The fairies’ costumes were particularly effective, especially the multicolored chiffon skirts. The guests at the ball were rather monotone, and could, I think have been a bit brighter. I could also do without the white wigs, which contributed to the guests’ anonymity, especially since Cinderella and her Prince get to wear their own hair; the Prince should not appear less formal than his guests. The costumes for the ugly sisters, though, were too garish, all feathers and clashing colors.
Their costumes, though, were the least of the production’s problems as far as the two sisters are concerned. Ashton and Helpmann are impossible acts to follow, I guess, and their ability to both underplay the movement (Helpmann could bring the house down just by a single limp) and still steal every scene they were in has left a difficult legacy. Unfortunately, this production’s answer has been to broaden and coarsen all of their movements. The two suitors are so vulgar that the original joke (one tall, one short) has been lost in lurid innuendo. The idea, never very funny, of having one dressed as Napoleon and one as Wellington, probably doesn’t mean much to the audience nowadays (especially since it makes nonsense of the time period), and the shorter suitor seems to have been given orders to be both Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Anthony Dowell, as the Helpmann sister, did seem to be on the way to a real character, sour, vain, and deluded. His version of Kitri’s solo in the ballroom scene had real comedy—if only his costume hadn’t screamed “THIS IS FUNNY!” Wayne Sleep, as the Ashton sister, though, missed the point completely. Ashton, in his frilly, lace encrusted costume, which was actually quite pretty, was everyone’s dithering old maid aunt, fussy, eager, and though irritating, certainly sympathetic. Sleep made all his movements big, and was always just a man in drag; he was a raging Baby Snooks, when he should have been Jane Austen’s Miss Bates.
The jester, too, was a problem, though not with the characterization, since he had none. Ashton’s original idea was a slightly cynical, sardonic comment on the proceedings, the jester as the confidant who never got the girl. José Martin would have been at home in a third-rate Soviet production of “Swan Lake”, all flashy leaps, shapeless upper body and mugging to the audience.
If there were problems on the character side, however, the classical dancing looked very good. The seasons (Christina Elida Salerno, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura Morera, and Deirdre Chapman) danced those wonderful solos with their elegant arms and quirky changes of direction with authority. The fairy godmother, Isabel McMeekan, (in a beautiful lilac costume, a bit too much of a “Sleeping Beauty” quotation) had a gracious authority and a weighted yet flowing quality.
The Cinderella, Tamara Rojo, has amazing gifts: a perfectly classical body, and a beautiful face. She is centered, strong, and not at all flashy. She was a bit too playful in the first act, dancing with the broom as if it were a toy, and not a longed for, imaginary partner. She could also have projected a bit more warmth in the ballroom scene; she certainly didn’t need to grin, but she could have used her large, dark eyes a bit more expressively. Perhaps she thought her dancing was expressive enough, and it almost was.
Her prince, Iñaki Urlezaga, gave her wonderful support, though his entrance seemed more directed towards the audience than towards his guests. It is a difficult role, since it is so understated. The partnering is exacting; he must stare rapturously at Cinderella as she enters while guiding her down those stairs as if in a dream. The lift in the final act, where she seems floats above him as he carries her down another set of stairs, must look effortless. The solo, to some of Prokofiev’s most ungrateful music, is full of directional changes, yet must flow; Urlezaga did a noble job.
Even with the problems, some probably unsolvable (until more comic geniuses come our way), some solvable (the suitors and the glitter), I would see it again in a New York minute.
The Royal Ballet in "Cinderella;" photo by Dee Conway.