At its best, in its incisive depiction of character through movement and the use of different genres of dance as mirrors of the soul, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Cinderella” is the most interesting new ballet I’ve seen in longer than I can remember. Unfortunately, this is also its problem, as it's interesting in the way an off-Broadway experimental play might be, more a conversation piece than theater. Mr. Ratmansky presents a consistent, if bleak, vision and a convincing modernization of the old fairy tale. The bleakness is deliberate, and inescapable, given the designs. (The sets, by Ilia Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov, and Elena Markovskay's costumes, are sparse rather than spare, and arguably the ugliest, most dispiriting to be seen here in eons). But a postmodernist three-act fairytale is unlikely to use the company’s gifts. This is a central problem for contemporary choreographers. There they are, stuck with 100 or so perfect bodies trained at great expense to perform an exquisitely refined physical language, but less useful in showing the depths of human degradation and misery.
Mr. Ratmansky is unrelentingly consistent in his depiction of Cinderella’s world. He danced for several years with the Royal Danish Ballet, and he knows his trolls. There’s more than a whiff of Bournonville’s “A Folk Tale” about the piece, and there are nods and bows to the great Russian choreographers of the past as well. The phrase “firmly rooted in the classical tradition” has become a joke in recent years, something crossover choreographers like to say when their ballets are as far from the classical tradition as it’s possible to imagine and they get called on it. But Mr. Ratmansky's "Cinderella" really is firmly rooted in the traditions of ballet. His vocabulary often springs from social dances, as did ballet at its beginning; he understands the difference between character and classical dancing and the uses of each; and he can create a character in a few deft strokes.
Like Hilda, the heroine of “A Folk Tale,” Cinderella is surrounded by trolls. Her Stepmother and Stepsisters aren’t slavedrivers—Cinderella seems to scrub floors to give herself something to do; her sense of worthlessness is self-imposed—they’re just greedy and selfish. But, then, everyone in the ballet, except Cinderella and the Prince, is greedy and selfish. The lovely sophisticates at the ball automatically fall into conga lines and routines as dull as dancing in 1950s tv variety shows. They lead empty lives, going from party to party, one imagines, while small, thuggish men in black seem to control everything.
Cinderella lives in what may be a warehouse, or the world’s largest garage, with metal contraptions that are part scaffolding, part staircases on either side. The scaffolding is her jungle gym, her hiding place, and it’s also where her imagination, or the guardians of her libido in the person of the Four Seasons, lurk, cloaked, in the shadows, waiting for her to awaken. (The seasons, four men, have perhaps the most hideous costumes. Men do not look their best in tank tops, and these poor fellows have to bear Mohawk hairdos and faces painted, like their costumes, in bright primary colors as well.) Cinderella’s ball gown looks fresh from the basement at Gum. The Prince, in a white suit with shiny lapels, could be a waiter at a fourth-class beach resort. There is no beauty anywhere in this world. Cinderella’s life has been so barren that she cannot even imagine beauty.
Unlike Bournonville’s Hilda, who retains her “Christian nature” even though she’s been raised by trolls (dancing beautiful classical variations while her foster family stomps about grotesquely), Mr. Ratmansky’s Cinderella moves like those around her. Natalia Sologub, Tuesday night’s Cinderella, was all limp limbed awkwardness and broken lines; Irina Golub, at Saturday’s matinee, looked like Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face.” Everyone might be saying she looks funny, but the long lines and effortlessly high extensions told a different story. Hilda was a 19th century heroine, created during a time when Western Europe was confident in—as its people might have put it—its superior civilization; of course her goodness/classicism was immutable. Cinderella is a 21st century anti-heroine, and while Ms. Sologub was a warm-hearted, generous scamp, her Cinderella had no self-confidence until the Fairy Tramp awakened her imagination and gave her the courage to go to the ball.
Or maybe it’s the Prince (Andrei Mercuriev) who’s Hilda; he alone is given purely classical variations. The first, his entrance, is so simple it could be from the 1940s (a series of jumps, brilliant beats, and turns) and Mr. Mercuriev’s Prince is also as simple and good-hearted as a 1940s movie star. As the ballet, and the Prince’s journey, progresses, his dancing softens and becomes more off-center and less heroic, and incorporates some of Cinderella’s steps. Cinderella's dancing changes as well. At the ball, urged by the others to dance, she tries a shimmy or two, but is too self-conscious to enter into their world. She's more comfortable alone with the Prince, matching her movements to his, as though his dancing were a magnet drawing out of her a sense of line and placement that she had forgotten she knew. He’s enchanted with her, because he senses the sweetness in her nature, and because she’s an interesting conversationalist—their hands babble sweet nothings during the ballroom pas de deux. This pas de deux is the most beautiful choreography in the ballet, and here Mr. Ratmansky isn’t afraid to be lyrical and Romantic.
There are many fine moments in this “Cinderella.” Mr. Ratmansky solves the problem of Cinderella’s ineffective father in a few brilliant strokes at the very beginning of the ballet. The father (Igor Petrov) flutters on, fleet-footed and charming and utterly weak, the embodiment of Vladimir Mayakovsky's "a cloud in trousers." But the mother (seen briefly in a flashback) dies, and the father turns to drink. One exit and an entrance shows that he's aged, and he begins to stumble about, trying to hold on to his dignity, but obviously more than tipsy. He falls in with bad companions. He loves his daughter, but is reduced to such a state that he has to beg her for money for a drink—and all this takes place in about 90 seconds. Another original characterization is that of the fairy godmother, here called the Fairy Tramp (Elene Bazhenova). There's no transformation; she enters as a Tramp and remains one, a rather mannish bag lady and a very decisive one. She knows what Cinderella wants and needs, and she's there to help her get it. The Fairy Tramp has the show’s one effective costume: loose rags that dance with her in her big character solo at the end of the first act.
The Fairy Tramp seems to summon and control the Four Seasons, whose role is, at first, puzzling. When we see four Kirov male dancers, we expect bravura dancing, stunning variations, gold medal winning tricks. We don't get them. These aren't virtuoso variations but little ballets in their own right, with each Season accompanied by a small female corps. Each dance evokes not only its season as climate, but a season in a person's life. The music is shared among the dancers; the corps will complete a phrase begun by the soloist, then pass it back again for further development. I found Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography very musical throughout. At times he deliberately matches each note to a step, usually for comic effect. At other times the choreography is simple and lyrical, as in the ball room pas de deux; and at still others, much more complex, as in the suite of dances for the Seasons.
When the Prince sets out on his journey (sporting a preppy red sweater and matching fanny pack, which he wears as a sporran, and which holds the size 10DD glass slipper) he visits only Spain and Arabia—or perhaps the Spanish and Arab ghettoes of his little principality. The Spanish dance is for a female soloist and eight women, a ballet in-joke, since nearly every 19th century ballet heroine is accompanied by an ever-present corps of eight. These women are perhaps too friendly with each other to be interested in a man or his slippered invitation. The Arabian dance is its opposite: a male soloist danciing with a corps of eight. The Prince is curious and intrigued—or confused—enough to offer one slinky chap the slipper. The idea of a virgin prince having to prove himself by resisting temptation, find his sexual identity and sow his wild oats before marrying Cinderella isn’t a bad one, but this is one place where Mr. Ratmansky’s storytelling seems to falter, since the Prince is a passive player in these scenes. We have no idea what he was thinking, or what effect his adventures had.
Mr. Ratmansky uses conventional mime sparingly, and with great effect. In the final scene, the Prince’s three Mafia-like handlers (who began the ballet as hairdressers, perhaps another in joke about the post-Soviet path to power) march in to the warehouse. The Stepmother (Irma Nioradze, as one of those ghastly mothers who tries to be a friend to her daughters and then competes with them for men) and the Stepsisters have been fighting. One of the Mafia men gets their attention by miming “A Prince is coming here.” It’s simple and yet it has the effect of a firecracker, as though we’ve been listening to gutter language all night, and finally someone speaks properly, albeit in a coarse accent. After the obligatory futile attempts at slipper fitting, Cinderella, who’s perched on the scaffolding, deliberately drops the other slipper at the Prince’s feet. Gotcha. Sologub was especially effective here, no more the sad sack, but a young woman who knows her own worth and knows what she has to do to get the Prince's attention. The Prince, too, is finally freed; the Fairy Tramp comes in and scatters the Mafia handlers to the winds. The scaffolding becomes a balcony, as the score recalls Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" for a few bars, and the Prince and Cinderella dance another pas de deux that is, in effect, a pas d'action. The two are out of sync at first, with Cinderella fighting a bit to retain her individuality before submitting to him, dancing his steps (why, of all the things to hang onto from the 18th century, Mr. Ratmansky picked that....) Then there are a few seconds of rapture, and the two end up cuddling on the ground, while stars—the one beauty in the designs—begin to flicker, then twinkle unabashedly. There’s a big cloud, of course, but the stars seem to cover it, rather than the other way around.
Two hours and 40 minutes is a long time to wait for a few minutes of beauty and hope, especially with ticket prices what they are these days. "Cinderella" would be a welcome novelty in a long season in St. Petersburg, perhaps, but not as the only piece brought by one of the world's great classical companies to a town that now sees precious little classical ballet. High Concept Productions have been the stock in trade for opera and theater for some time now, but ballet is a different animal. Put the design first, and you box in the choreographer in impossible ways. The program sports a ballerina in a white tutu with suspiciously swanny arms on its cover. If you advertise swans, then people who buy tickets expect to see them. Serving up something else is bad for business. Mr. Ratmansky, only 37, who has choreographed several works and now directs the Bolshoi Ballet, could be very good for business. His "Bright Stream" for the Bolshoi, where he had a free hand in the concept department, was very highly regarded, as were several early ballets. I hope to see more of his work.
Next week, the stars will come out in another sense, as the company will be dancing Balanchine's "La Valse" and "Rubies," Petipa's "Le Corsaire pas de deux" and Fokine's "The Dying Swan."
3, No. 3