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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Once More, with “Feeling"–
Prokofiev's Cinderella Through the Ages

by Chris Tyler

Nadezhda Batoeva in the Mariinsky Theater's Cinderella. Batoeva dances the role at BAM on January 20. 
Photo: N. Razina

Move over, Queen Elsa—there’s a new classic back in town. Cinderella and her glass slipper are everywhere, and the Mariinsky Theater’s production of Prokofiev’s fairy tale ballet—running January 17—20 in the Howard Gilman Opera House–is just the tip of the folkloric iceberg. Take, for instance, Rob Marshall’s cinematic rendition of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, featuring a blithe Anna Kendrick in the role of princess-to-be. Or Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming live-action version of Disney’s animated treasure, starring Downton Abbey’s Lily James as Ella and Cate Blanchett as her stepmother Lady Tremaine. And don’t forget Douglas Carter Beane’s take on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical fable–which just closed on Broadway after a nearly two-year run. Indeed, much like the timeless rags-to-riches story at its core, Prokofiev’s jubilant score has similarly inspired countless interpretations since its debut in 1945.

This premiere production at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, with direction and choreography by Rostislav Zakharov, was preserved on film in 1961 and is now available to stream in its entirety online:

In the opening sequence, Cinderella (a charming Raisa Struchkova) cleans as her wretched stepsisters argue over a shawl they’re constructing for the Prince’s Spring Ball, tearing it in two. Their dastardly mother, however, blames innocent Cinderella. Punctuated by Prokofiev’s swirling, staccato score, the sequence comically highlights the abuse Cinderella suffers, amplifying the protagonist’s timely escape to the palace in Act 2. Zakharov’s staging also features lush scenery, stellar acting, and, most notably, the introduction of seasonal fairies to the narrative–Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter–as magical accomplices to Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

Later stagings of Prokofiev’s score diverge significantly from this original production, but its comedy and romance always resonate. Frederick Ashton’s version for the Royal Ballet in 1948, for instance, exaggerates the piece's humor to a delightful end. Excising the story of its matronly antagonist, we find Cinderella living with a feeble father and two ugly step-sisters (portrayed by Robert Helpmann and Ashton himself in "travesty," or drag—a long-running pantomime tradition). The piece is interwoven with numerous dream sequences for each of the characters, indulging deeply in the fantastic escapism at the story’s heart.

On the other hand, Rudolf Nureyev’s imaginative, Busby Berkeley-fied rendition for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1986 finds our heroine dreaming of fame and fortune in Hollywood. Her prince is a movie star, her fairy godfather, a producer, and her ball, a screen-test. Zakharov’s shawl debacle and Ashton’s campy casting remain, as seen in this recording of a 2008 staging:

Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, however (commissioned by the Mariinsky in 2002 and playing BAM from January 17—20), most sleekly unifies the shimmering romanticism and angular modernism of Prokofiev’s score. Of particular note, again, is his rendering of the wicked step-family. Sporting a symmetrical, orange bob and evoking neon notes of both Fosse and Balanchine, Cinderella's stepmother drunkenly leaps across the stage in service of her doltish daughters—extending her limbs to extraordinary lengths and pointed comedic effect. The rapturous, lyrical movement of Ratmansky's Cinderella, in turn, contrasts sharply with that of her angular stepmother, magnified within the towering but spare scenic design reminiscent of an industrious 1920s. Ratmansky's production gorgeously embodies Prokofiev’s original intention to depict Cinderella “not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us.”

So let it go, Elsa—because Cinderella was never really gone to begin with.

The Mariinsky Theater's Cinderella plays the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House January 17—20. Diana Vishneva dances the title role on January 17, Anastasia Matvienko on January 18, and Nadezhda Batoeva (pictured above) on January 20.

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