A great performance requires more than exquisite technique, as National Ballet of Canada principal dancers Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté continue to prove.
Twelve years ago, Rodriguez and Côté enchanted audiences in James Kudelka’s unorthodox retelling of a classic story. Cinderella – the marriage-plot fairy tale of a young girl who toils over endless housework until her solicitous Fairy Godmother grants her the chance to meet a man – opened this season on November 12. Rodriguez and Côté, as Cinderella and her Prince Charming, reprise the roles they originated. While they have grown as artists, both dancers continue to embody the lively naiveté they brought to the stage over a decade ago. Opulent, intricately choreographed and humorous, Cinderella makes a charming return to the stage.
Kudelka’s choreography exudes nuance and playfulness. Dancers at the Prince’s ball have steps from the foxtrot, Charleston, waltz, promenade and tango, hinting at both the setting of this particular ballet and the timelessness of the story. In their attempts to catch the Prince’s attention, the Stepsisters slink around en pointe like cats, literally “on the prowl”. The story features many characters out of their depth, echoed in the Stepsisters using their escorts as barres to practice battements en balançoire (rapid kicks back and forth with one foot while the body tilts in the opposite direction), and in the simulation of centre work as the fairies teach Cinderella how to dance in her new, glittering pointe shoes. These tiny nods and visual puns add another layer of richness to an already intricate and lavish production.
Airy and breathtakingly beautiful, Rodriguez and Côté’s pas de deux in Act III echoes the soaring, bird-like quality of the fairies in Act I. Their performances look truly effortless, as though their limbs are feather light. Rodriguez’s feet hardly touch the ground as Côté sweeps her through the swelling music (composed by Sergei Prokofiev and conducted by Ormsby Wilkins) in a series of dizzying lifts. Tanya Howard and Rebekah Rimsay often steal the scene as the Stepsister and the Other Stepsister, Howard’s wickedly prideful grace and extension beautifully juxtaposed with Rimsay’s riotous teetering and scrambling.
Set in the early twentieth century, several of the characters have been refreshingly modernized. Cinderella is untraditionally feisty. She engages with the Stepsisters, spiritedly provoking them as though she knows that she is secretly more clever than them. The Fairy Godmother (Lorna Geddes) has abandoned wings and a wand for a stately dress and walking cane. Not nearly as evil as she is desperate, the Stepmother (Lise-Marie Jourdain) yearns to claw her way up the social ladder.
The ballet evokes a certain darkness. Cinderella’s fantasy of meeting Prince Charming at the top of the ballet has an almost menacing atmosphere through billowing smoke, a darkened stage and masked, featureless actors crawling out of the fireplace. The Stepmother’s comedy lies in her hopeless alcoholism and her daughters follow suit at the ball. Even the synopsis in the programme plays into the darkness, stating that “her fairy godmother warned Cinderella to return home by midnight lest something dreadful happen to her. It’s not safe in palaces late at night”. The dreadful thing manifests not as the carriage turning back into a pumpkin, but rather as the courtiers and Pumpkinheads swarming around Cinderella, frightening her and leaving her shivering, in only her underdress.
Disproportionate size, unvarnished wood, roses painted in two dimensional strokes and limbs cut in playful sweeps all give the furnishing in the kitchen set a dollhouse quality. The home is too big for its occupants. With the countertops at shoulder height, the Stepmother must climb up open drawers to reach her boozy stash. The dollhouse motif carries through the stepsisters’ choreography, in wooden, Coppélia-esque port-de-bras and penchées. In a world beyond her reach, the Stepmother plays her daughters as dolls in a marriage game, striving for status but falling short.
Kudelka has taken a fairy-tale and injected it with adult themes, but this does not take away from the enjoyment of the ballet. Children will see the classic story, jaw-dropping visual effects and colourful, sumptuous costumes – the subtleties remain as sly winks to the adults.
A wooden armchair with a large cushion sits stage right through all three acts, often empty. It implies an absentee storyteller and aids in suspending the disbelief of fairies and jewel-encrusted flying pumpkins. In Act III, the chair sits next to the fireplace where, in the closing bars, Cinderella sits with the Prince, finally becoming the storyteller of her own life. As fairy tale metamorphoses into reality, the audience is reminded that even in the drudgery of everyday life, one can always find a little magic.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Cinderella from November 12 through 20 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.