In his new full-length “Cinderella” for Alberta Ballet, choreographer and artistic director Jean Grand-Maître’s vision is of a young woman more concerned with the daunting task of survival than with snaring a prince. In this ballet, we meet a Cinderella whose eventual triumph is reclaiming her birthright, her natural dignity, and the affection of her father. Falling in love with the Prince is a happy outcome of that journey, not the goal.
The ballet opens with a series of stark scenes that sets the tone for the grim circumstances from which Cinderella must emerge. We see Cinderella as a sorrowful figure in her mother’s funeral cortege, then grieving and alone in a dark cellar at the bottom of the stairs, sadly attending to her chores. Her father’s abandonment, represented by his distant, shadowed figure far upstage and unresponsive to Cinderella’s yearning gestures, becomes another fresh grief.
The gloomy mood is brightened by the arrival of the Friend, a sprightly character brilliantly danced by the buoyant Hokuto Kodama. He cheers Cinderella by enticing her to dance, and in this lovely, delicate pas de deux we begin to see the real Cinderella, expressing a delightful lightness of spirit and playfulness that is drawn out by her companion. The mood, however, is soon altered by the wild, shrieking arrival of the Stepmother and Sisters, who thunder loudly down the stairs to great effect. Their swirling aggression quickly reduces Cinderella to an utterly dejected figure, anxiously crouching behind a chair to escape their abuse.
As the story unfolds, Grande-Maître uses extreme movements and body postures to reveal Cinderella’s shifts in mood and circumstance. Her appearance alters dramatically — in despair, she is bent over, dejected, flatfooted, her movement angular and contracted. As she finds allies, her back straightens and she reaches outward with delicate, hopeful gestures. In the end, she moves with elegant, balletic poise, joyously elevated and youthfully energetic as she dances with her Prince.
Danced by the expressive Sabrina Matthews, the exaggerated movement employed by Grand-Maître creates a vivid sketch of Cinderellas emotional journey. The role was created on Matthews, and she is an accomplished dancer whose passionate interpretation gives the ballet its emotional centre.
As seen in his smaller works, Grand-Maître has a gift for staging movement with keen intelligence. Although he sometimes sets his corps dancing adrift in the melody, he is a wonderfully musical choreographer, and this ballet moves apace with the tempo and sharply delineated moods of Prokofievs wonderful score.
Stark contrasts also provide the visual and metaphorical cues for the ballet’s design, sifting between foreground and background, between light and dark. The set, designed by Guillaume Lord, is a beautiful series of black and white cutout silhouettes that fly in and out for swift and effective scene changes, and which also provide sharp storybook frames for the action.
“Cinderella” is a ballet with many opportunities for comic diversion, and this production doesnt disappoint. The Stepmother, played with towering comic drama by Christopher Anderson, is a pitch-perfect portrait of insecure, self-important manipulation. The ugly Stepsisters (in this case quite beautiful, and wonderfully danced by Amada Walsh and Alexis Maragozis) are a hilariously self-involved duo, twirling around the stage in tight formation, a hair-pulling, shrieking ball of energy. They barely pause long enough to heap scorn on poor Cinderella.
Though a small company of just twenty-five dancers, Alberta Ballet can certainly fill the stage — as evidenced by the entrance of the Prince’s men with their invitation to the Prince’s ball. In this scene, one of the ballet’s most animated, we are treated to a delightful three-ring circus of movement, character and plot development.
The role of the Jester is a soloist’s showcase, and is danced with technical precision and considerable glee by the excellent Christopher Gray. He prances about the stage in flirtatious encouragement, all spectacular jumps, turns and charismatic postures. The Prince (Jonathan Renna) and his men engage in bravura ensemble dancing that displays the pride of the Prince’s court — and the strength of the excellent male dancers currently enlivening Alberta Ballet. The potential of husbands and riches causes the Stepmother and Sisters to undergo a furious, class-conscious transformation, and they barely reign in their grasping arms and reckless charges across the stage in their attempts to achieve a more seemly, feminine poise. And amidst the swirl of activity, we witness the touching spectacle of Cinderella being drawn into the excitement, straightening up and joining the dance with the others, only to have her hopes dashed by a stern admonition from her Stepmother.
Once again, Cinderella is banished to her cellar, sad and dejected. Her Friend reappears and, soon after, the Fairy Godmother (Leigh Allardyce). With lovely visual effect, the set is quickly transformed from the cellar into a fantasy forest, and the Fairies enter to fill the stage with the grace — and magic — that transform Cinderella into a Princess. She tests her new identity by learning to dance and, in this scene, we see Matthews ably portray a startling physical and emotional transformation, from cringing despair to soft, delicate steps towards hope. Cinderella is delighted to learn she may go to the ball, but receives the famous warning to leave by midnight.
Under the cathedral arches and chandeliers of the Prince’s court, the Jester entertains once again with his spectacular jumps, and the entire ensemble dances a bright, lively mazurka. This colourful, swirling scene grows still with the arrival of Cinderella, who walks slowly downstage in modest glory, dressed in a shimmering silver gown. The Prince and Cinderella are smitten and dance a series of gentle pas de deux as the ball returns to its hubbub of activity. When the clock inevitably strikes, Cinderella flees, leaving behind her slipper.
Back in the dark cellar, the Steps are perplexed to find Cinderella in a frenzy of cleaning, but they are quickly distracted when heralds announce the arrival of the Prince. The Stepmother hides Cinderella from view, and provides an expansive, twittering welcome to the Prince, archly presenting her daughters as likely candidates for his affection.
What follows is a hilarious scene in which the Stepsisters compete valiantly — extravagantly — to fit into the portentous slipper. They push and shove each other, they kick their legs and flail — and the Prince barely avoids serious injury amid the frenzy. The Jester eventually discovers Cinderella in a cupboard, and brings her, trembling, to the Prince. The shoe fits, and at last, her destiny is revealed.
The stagecraft is lovely as Cinderella, for the last time, is transformed from a bent, flat-footed and browbeaten state, into a poised and beautiful young Princess, her elegant posture strong and erect en pointe. A final scene of forgiveness and reconciliation with her family confirms her father’s love and marks Cinderella’s achievement of self-confidence and dignity, and she is at last swept off to the palace. The final grand pas de deux is full of youthful, athletic partnering, lyrical sweeps across the stage and tender embraces — the very picture of young love.
There are some flaws in the ballet, including some awkward mime and overly dramatic acting, and at times the corps had trouble finding their unison in the ensemble work. But these are small complaints. Overall, Grand-Maître shows a very deft touch with this, his first full-length production for Alberta Ballet. “Cinderella” is a warm-hearted and delightfully visual ballet, full of smart staging, lively characterizations and plenty of enjoyable dancing.