While the standard versions of Cinderella imagine the ballet in its usual context as a storybook tale imbued with romantic underpinnings and a full measure of often superficial fantasy. The Jean-Christophe Maillot Cinderella for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo casts it as fable of remembrance and a narrative with the power to transform the characters. Much of the well-known story is still there, but the manner in which the characters inhabit it is utterly altered. We see this from the very beginnings in the Prologue as Cinderella, in a waking reverie, remembers her father’s and mother’s love for each other as they dance. She recalls a deep sense of loss as her mother dies, dropping into a pool of light. The tableau is sealed as a mist of silver dust falls from above. It’s an unusual place to begin, partly because the moment seems so real, and final. By the concluding tableau in Act III it is Cinderella standing with her Prince in an identically charged moment has her father looks on. The father’s journey has put him back in touch with his lost love but it is his daughter, and her persistent desire to hold on to the memory of her mother, who has powered both her transformation and his.
What comes between these two powerful moments is not always as well defined, nor as emotionally poignant. This is the other pole of Maillot’s ballet, steeped in caricature and the grotesque. It comes to life in the sexualized relationships and broadly drawn characters such as The Pleasure Superintendents (played with hyperactive flair by Asier Edeso and Raphaël Bouchard) ,The Sisters (Maude Sabourin and Francesca Dolci) ,The Mannequins and The Exotics, all of whom are realized with a full measure of theatricalized invention and various excesses. They, along with the terminally vain and grasping Stepmother (Gaelle Riou), are the impediments to Cinderella’s journey but we quickly see that they don’t stand a chance against her and her guiding Fairy, played provocatively by April Ball in Friday evening’s performance. Maillot layers his story by making The Fairy a doppelgänger for Cinderella’s mother. She presides as a kind of guardian angel.
Maillot’s Cinderella gives us a startling visual spectacle. Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s sets of movable billowy white flats sometimes covered with visual projections alternately become pages of a diary, picture frames, mirrored surfaces or are warped into a staircase. The costuming by Jérôme Kaplan is on a delightful over drive, with an assortment of cartoonish tutus, exotic headdresses and garish ball gowns. The women, who are bare legged and dressed provocatively in corset-like leotards, are on pointe. Cinderella is barefoot. Her feet, eventually covered in a wash of gold sequins become the object of the Prince’s search. Dominique Drillot’s often darkened or horizontally projected lighting reinforced the dark corners of Prokofiev’s score.
But there is still a romantic center here, brought into focus by the character of the Father, The Prince, Cinderella and The Fairy. The Father, danced with lofting jumps and a true romantic heart by Alvaro Prieto, fulfilled this vision with more honest sentiment than Alexis Olveira as the Prince. Olveira, though buoyant in his movement and bright of face, felt less invested. Noelani Pantastico as Cinderella was always ardent. Both she and Olveira finally delivered a romantic vision in their Act III pas de deux which, imbued with natural movement and sweeping carried lifts, gave us a believable and honest conclusion. Prieto and April Ball as the Fairy were spectacular in their scenes together. She is on stage for much of the ballet and was a particularly powerful force in Friday’s performance.
Maillot is better known in Europe where he has choreographed for many of the major companies. He handles the connection between movement and music with a detailed understanding. Prokofiev’s score for Cinderella is not as perfect as his music for Romeo and Juliet. It can tend to feel fragmented and lacks the later ballet’s sustained romanticism but Maillot has found for this production a compelling amalgam of classical movement, slicing legs, and at times feral expression that fits his telling of the story. The attractive and versatile company looked comfortable and at home with his movement. They shone in the ensemble sections which filled the stage with an abundant energy.
The evening was accompanied by a recorded performance of the music which was not identified on the program. Alas, it was the one missing ingredient in an otherwise exceptional evening. Segerstrom audiences are warming to the wonders of big time dance from the Euro Zone. They gave the company a full measure of applause. Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo move on to New York City next week with repertory programs at the Joyce Theater.
(For an excellent recording of Prokofiev’s Cinderella see the 1983 Cleveland Orchestra version by Decca. The reviewed performance took place at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.)