Mariinsky Ballet shifts gears in Ratmansky’s Cinderella

Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella has been seen in widely differing productions for major companies around the world. It has generally been treated with more variety than its more popular cousin, Romeo and Juliet. Matthew Bourne’s version for example is set in London during the Blitz while others (Ashton) have embraced the full measure of the story as a period fairy tale. Both avoid linking the music and setting historically. But Alexei Ratmansky has dived into his mid-century Russian version creating an intact three-act ballet that is expansive and unhurried. During the company’s tour in the United States performances of Cinderella at the Los Angeles Music Center were paired with a musty version of Raymonda in Orange County, giving local audiences a chance to see a revered Russian Imperial ballet and a Russian contemporary neo-classical ballet side by side.

Prokofiev’s music veers between gloomy romanticism and off-kilter sardonic temperament. Ratmansky has designed choreography that captures both moods while cleverly reminding us with the details of his story that time, not perfect matches, is the ultimate challenger to all happy endings. On Thursday’s opening night performance Diana Vishneva and Konstantin Sverev were paired as Cinderella and the Prince. His dancing mostly limns classical domains (beats, tours, and expansive jumps) while Vishneva invests her Cinderella with exaggerated, pliant gestures. Frequently emphasizing off balance movement and theatrical expression, the choreography does what it can to scrub away the classicism. It sometimes lacks variety but Vishneva, who has gravitated recently toward more contemporary choreography, is convincing with the role’s demands. Both dancers share a genuine bond in their intimately detailed and soaring partnering. Tall and dashing in all white, Sverev’s Prince is forthrightly made with buoyant dancing. His restrained classicism becomes a symbol for his upright character and honest intentions.

Certain movements carry through all three acts. One in particular, a hip thrusting lunge seems derived from Balanchine, while the eccentric movement for the ballroom scenes feels distantly modeled on Fosse. There are also peculiar arm and hand gestures that are not always clearly understandable. At one point during the Act II ballroom scene Ratmansky steals the universally recognized gesture of the arms circling one another above the head, the miming equivalent for “dance”. That gesture is familiar to us from Sleeping Beauty and other classics, but employed here it shows us that Ratmansky is willing to mix his metaphors, acknowledging his roots as a classicist while making something new out of the old.

The choreographer has generally made excellent story ballets. His Bright StreamNamouna, Firebird, and Sleeping Beauty are all first rate. But some of the details in this Cinderella are not as perfectly realized. The Prince’s first glimpse of Cinderella at the ball becomes a mostly unexplained infatuation. She does little to capture his attention which makes his pursuit seem superficial. The Seasons in Act I (four large ensembles each headed by a male soloist) are a bit arbitrary both in style and purpose. They feel like old fashioned allegorical diversions uncomfortably fit into a modern story. The Winter section with the women in tutus and dancing under falling snow plays like a miniature ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ (The Nutcracker). In the central character roles, the trio of the Stepmother and two Stepsisters is more garish than funny. Their sustained quarreling, mock bad dancing, and head-high kicks wear thin quickly.  Genuine humor, the kind that underpinned much of The Bright Stream, is mostly missing here and it is something of a disappointment. Lastly, both the roles of the Father and the wish-granting Fairy Tramp feel incomplete. The former is mostly dispensable while the Fairy Tramp lacks the context to cement her continuing presence in the story line.

Ratmansky Cinderella: The Seasons with Diana Vishneva

Ratmansky Cinderella: The Seasons with Diana Vishneva

Two large ensemble pieces in Act III counterbalance the Seasons in Act I. The Prince in his search for the owner of the slipper encounters the louche world of easy hook ups in two groups of women and men who vie for his attention. The male ensemble was terrific. Dressed in black tee shirts and electric blue pants they came across with a hefty dose of homoerotic appeal and sketchy intentions. Both become stepping stones (as well as tests of character) for the Prince during his search. Those interactions give the romantic duos that close Act III a sense of purpose as well as help to confirm the Prince’s faithful intentions.

The visual designs for the ballet come with big architectural sets and backdrops by Ilya Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov. A huge rotating ironwork clock doubles as a chandelier in the ballroom dance scenes while a pair of Escher-like staircases tower over each side of the stage. The final scenes of Act III take place in the open spaces of a monumental tree lined allée outlined against a starry sky. Here Prokofiev’s rich romantic music, a green world stripped of social responsibilities, and unencumbered dancing gave us a peaceful, emotionally charged ending.

The Mariinsky Ballet Orchestra deserves special mention for magnificent playing. They elevated Glazunov’s serviceable music for Raymonda and powered the whole of Prokofiev’s expressive score with phenomenally detailed playing, making this easily the best music of any recent local dance performance in Los Angeles. Ratmansky is finely attuned to his scores. His choreography is as detailed as the music. But it was the orchestra and Gavriel Heine’s expressive conducting that gave us the clean edgy rhythms, color, and sweep that made it seem essential.

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