It's the shoes

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 2, 2006

By Lisa Rinehart
copyright ©2006, Lisa Rinehart

Choreographer James Kudelka is down with what every fashion savvy gal already knows — it's all about the shoes. His barefoot Cinderella rattles about despondently in a super-sized suburban kitchen until fortune provides a pair of sparkling pointe shoes that would make Manolo Blanik salivate. It's a pleasing conceit for a ballet — pointe shoes as a sign of inner refinement and womanhood, at least for Cinderella. For her status hungry stepsisters and the rest of their social set, however, pointe shoes are a necessary trapping of social class — even if they wear them like construction workers. Kudelka exploits both possibilities with glee. Cinderella moves from childish barefoot abandon to conventional grace en pointe, but is most poignant galumphing gingerly with one shoe on and one shoe off. She literally has a foot in each world and is all the more miserable for it. Meanwhile, the stepsisters (danced, thankfully, by women and not men in drag) hunker into their shoes like diving hawks grabbing at mice and cavort through the most inventive and funny choreography of the ballet. They almost never come off pointe, but are hopelessly crass to the end, illustrating another truism that inner beauty is never about the best shoes at the party.

Kudelka's choice to focus on Cinderella's evolution from awkward, dreamy girl to elegant young woman is a nicely modern twist for a story traditionally interpreted as a girl's need for rescue by a man. The fairy godmother conjures Cinderella's feminine assets from the back garden, but what's really going on is a rite of passage. Blossom (Misty Copeland), Petal (Maria Riccetto), Moss (Stella Abrera) and Twig (Veronika Part) are giving Cinderella the tools to understand that everything she needs is already inside her. Granted, this is a fairy tale, so, of course, she manages to snag the best guy in town, but not until after she's donned her glimmering Freed's and discovered her own power. If Kudelka had wanted to throw us for a serious loop, he might have had Cinderella reject the prince instead of settling for domestic bliss by the fireside where she'd already toiled for so long, but hey, maybe it's even more modern to imagine that a woman can be married and still retain her sense of self. Maybe Cinderella, in connubial comfort, will go on to design and manufacture her own line of shoes enabling women throughout the kingdom to discover the power of their inner princess.

But I digress; let's talk about the dancing. Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes are about as movie star perfect as one could hope for as Cinderella and Her Prince Charming. Kudelka created "Cinderella" for the National Ballet of Canada in 2004 while he was the company's artistic director and it has since been presented by the Boston Ballet in 2005, but American Ballet Theater has the roster to cast this ballet brilliantly. Kent, with her usual delicacy, makes a nuanced transition from girl to woman, but manages to keep her Cinderella spunky enough to handle Kudelka's intentionally awkward bravura steps in bare feet. And can I just throw in how effortlessly she pulls off a series of fouettes with only one shoe on — you don't need the other shoe to do the step, but psychologically, it's got to be weird to be performing the balletic equivalent of a high C with one bare foot. Gomes is dashing and ramrod solid as he blasts through consecutive double tours, multiple pirouettes, circles of barrel turns and huge jetes. Prince Charming isn't a role of depth, but Gomes provides all the necessary flash to make us not really care. The evening is nearly stolen, however, by the performances of Erica Cornejo and Carmen Corella as Her Stepsisters. In a blond wig, the statuesque Corella looks like a Marlene Deitrich wannabe gimping about on pointe and dripping with obsequiousness and feigned sophistication. Cornejo, petite and hysterical in owl-eyed black glasses, has the timing of an expert vaudevillian as she stumbles myopically into furniture and people. But these are not slapstick roles. Corella and Cornejo execute Kudelka's wicked hard steps with a precision and clarity that only the best dancers can manage. They give this Cinderella its muscle and bite in equal measure. Not to be outdone by a couple of youngsters, Martine Van Hamel fumes to great effect as the perpetually sauced Stepmother and Susan Jones is sweetly benevolent as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother.

If there is a weakness in Kudelka's work it is a tendency toward the baroque. When one arm gesture is sufficient there are usually three. In group dances florid steps overlay one another in increasingly complicated canons until the effect is that of water muddied with too many colors. During the Garden sequence, and again during the Ball, even the giant stage of the Metropolitan Opera House seems crowded as Kudelka keeps the dancers in constant motion. We are never allowed the luxury of lingering on any one image. A breathless quality in dance is usually exciting, but with Prokofiev's already mysterious and intricate score, such relentlessness of movement has the strange by-product of robbing wonder from the stage. Key moments, such as when Cinderella arrives at the Ball and when the clock is striking twelve, are obscured by so much activity that we start to glaze over precisely when we should be paying attention. The visual confusion of these sections is exacerbated by David Boechler's Erte inspired glittering black dresses paired with black stockings that blur the ladies' legs and feet, and unfortunate black cutaways for the men that flap annoyingly with every rapid revolution. I'm sure these costumes are gorgeous individually, but a fairy tale wash of color may have been a better choice.

That said, Kudelka has created a charming and sophisticated "Cinderella" with a surprising amount of psychological depth. Kirk Peterson as A Photojournalist captures the zeitgeist as he runs around snapping flash photos of party goers eager to get themselves into gossip magazines. The clueless Stepsisters are perfect metaphors for our present day obsession with outward appearances. It's Cinderella, with her rich inner life and modest demeanor, who is the most fully formed and likable character of the story. She's not a rebel, and she has the advantage of winning the fairy tale lottery with a prince and a kingdom to show for it, but I'll bet if she does start up that shoe line she'll design some kick-ass shoes that women can really walk in.

Photos of Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in "Cinderella" by Gene Schiavone.

Volume 4, No. 22
June 5, 2006

copyright ©2006 Lisa Rinehart



©2006 DanceView