Boston Ballet’s staging of James Kudelka’s version of “Cinderella” is not just another exercise in transforming a sad drudge into an airbrushed tootsie.
James Kudelka’s “Cinderella” presented by the Boston Ballet at the Wang Theatre.
By Debra Cash
In television’s era of extreme makeovers retelling the story of Cinderella could be just another exercise in turning some sad drudge into an airbrushed tootsie. The sweetness of Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s 2004 Cinderella, getting its U.S. debut with Boston Ballet this week, lies in the way he indicates that Cinderella’s fairy godmother-sponsored opportunity turns out to be her chance to become more completely herself. Authenticity earns her the love of her life and allows her prince to escape a hollow royal future.
Kudelka follows the traditional fairy tale plot pretty closely. You know the story. When we meet Cinderella, she’s up on a cabinet polishing the candelabra. Almost immediately she has an odd visitation from some doll-sized masked figures (dancers on their knees) who emerge out of the fireplace smoke. One of them gives her a bridal veil; she kisses a masked doll wearing a crown. Cinderella may not have an engraved invitation to the local prince’s ball in hand but that doesn’t keep her from fantasizing.
Kudelka constantly alternates between the imaginary and the real. When Cinderella knocks over her mop bucket, she “slips” in the water and spends a few bars of Prokofiev’s score shaking out the hem of her “wet” apron. She even sneezes. The best running jokes of the ballet play out this tension. Cinderella’s martini-tippling, cigarette-smoking Stepmother (company ballet mistress Jennifer Glaze) would be creepy to live with, but she’s in touch with her inner Garbo.
Kudelka’s most original decision is to make the ballet play out a history of Cinderella’s footwear. She begins the ballet barefoot; is given her pair of sequined toe shoes (a.k.a. glass slippers) by her fairy godmother (Donna Silva) just before the first intermission; and then spends most of the rest of the ballet with one shoe off and one shoe on.
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Throughout these changes she always moves like a classical ballerina, often on tiptoe. (Bare feet are not invariably linked to modern dance, no matter what people say.) Later, Prince Charming makes his way around the world to try the shoe on a bold aviatrix, a fortune-telling flamenco dancer, and a couple of women in wooden shoes. There’s even a joke especially for Canadian audiences when a muffled figure swathed in a Hudson Bay blanket coat glides by on skis. Most of the women the Prince meets pass on trying to fit into Cinderella’s lost slipper. They have better ways to spend their time than auditioning to marry him.
Audiences, of course, know that the glass slipper belongs to only one girl, but Kudelka blows it by surrounding Cinderella with a bunch of kneeling courtiers when she tries on the shoe. You can’t see a thing when the proverbial shoe fits.
When she’s wearing rags, Lorna Feijoo’s dancing in the title role (which will be shared later in the Boston Ballet run by Larissa Ponomarenko and the recently-promoted Romi Beppu) is self-absorbed and borderline bratty. She has tantrums, she aspires to perform the steps the fairies in her garden execute so effortlessly, but doesn’t seem the kind of girl who would break down and cry. Transformed by magic she is almost self-effacing, which doesn’t make dramatic sense.
What does make sense is Kudelka’s homage to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Once the Prince and Cinderella get a few moments alone in the moonlight, their duet opens up, with the two facing each other, mirroring their spins. They don’t touch at all until the Prince tips Cinderella’s chin with his fingers. She gives into her Prince’s lifts with a exhalation that signals complete most romantic surrender, and when they leave the stage they walk in the same direction, holding hands.
Carlos Molina, who danced the role of the Prince during the original National Ballet of Canada run when he substituted for a dancer sidelined by injury, is a debonair hunk who had a beautiful, polished leap but not a whole lot of inner life. (Later casts are Nelson Madrigal and Roman Rykine.) He’s a Prince Charming but I wouldn’t call him Prince Interesting.
It’s hard to improve on the classic Frederick Ashton stepsisters-in-drag choreography that Kudelka has dissed in print, but the choreographer provides meaty roles for a pair of dancing actresses. One Stepsister (Sacha Wakelin alternating with Kathleen Breen Combes) is glamorous and as clueless as someone who never stops talking. The scene-stealing second sister (Heather Myers alternating with Tempe Ostergren with a characterization that reminds me of Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Rosannadanna) is so astigmatic that she dances in the wrong direction, and so guileless that her response to being at the palace is an unmistakable, shoulder-shrugging “gee whiz.” You don’t mind waiting for Cinderella to make her entrance while these two are jubilantly waving at each other from the crest of a lift.
“Cinderella” may be Kudelka’s ballet, but his collaborator, set, and costume designer David Boechler is responsible for the greater part of its appeal. He decorates Cinderella’s kitchen with Rennie Macintosheque rose stencils and plants Cinderella’s verdant garden with a jungle of rhubarb and vines. Ball guests in black tailcoats and glittering marcasite black and silver gowns pose for a photographer under a string of white Japanese paper lanterns and a pumpkin-round harvest moon. And what heroine wouldn’t prefer to arrive at the palace in Boechler’s glowing orange pumpkin-shaped chaise instead of stepping out of an ordinary a stretch limo? Cinderella’s carriage could almost be carved out of 1,100 lb. pumpkin that won first place at the latest Topsfield Fair and sits, roped off in the Wang Theatre lobby, where Boston Ballet usually parks cars they are raffling.
In fact, it is the pumpkin that wins the day. Kudelka’s art deco “Cinderella” ends not with palace pomp but with Prince Charming and Cinderella curled up together at her cozy hearth adjacent to the garden. This domestic updating has an autobiographical subtext. In the 1930s, Kudelka’s Hungarian father immigrated to Canada to study agriculture. The choreographer grew up on a farm near Newmarket, Ontario. It’s hard not to read this “Cinderella” as a valentine to his own family’s fruitful choices. Sometimes happily ever after depends on tending your own garden.
Boston Ballet’s “Cinderella” is at the Wang Theatre, Boston, MA, through October 23, 2005.