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The Bolshoi's Cinderella a Gift of Wit

Svetlana Zakharova, Photo by Marc HaegemanI rarely review ballet (too difficult to write, the music too slight to endure), and when I do, I savage it. It is an art-form that is even more artificial than opera (and that’s saying something) and one for which I have even less patience when it comes to tradition for its own sake. It is bad enough when opera doesn’t try anything new, relying on the old and staid. With ballet I find it instantly unbearable; sloppiness of execution unacceptable. A superb dancer can salvage a lot, and perhaps more than a superb singer, but it’s generally not enough.

But when everything comes together – or most everything – then a ballet performance can serve as justification for its entire genre. Roland Petit’s Pique Dame for the Bolshoi is such a production and performance (available on DVD), the Bolshoi’s updated Cinderella by Yuri Possokhov (choreography) and Yuir Borisov (staging), playing at the Kennedy Center, is such a production, too, and you can see it live – today, Thursday, and tomorrow, Friday, at 7.30PM. If you have any inclination toward ballet whatsoever, do yourself a favor and experience this fantastical, fantastic performance… a box of weird delights and surprises, cute turns, fun and wit. It crackles and tickles and unless the principal dancers (Ekaterina Shipulina and Andrey Merkuriev, Thursday, and Ekaterina Krysanova, Friday) feature hoofs and claws, it should be no different with them than the Wednesday guarde. (Sergei Filin is in the Wednesday and Friday performance and proved hoof-free.)

Unlike the Kirov Ballet, the Bolshoi takes its American tours seriously (Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi’s artistic director was in the audience, the Bolshoi’s top dancers are here) – and while they didn’t bring the (incomprehensibly controversial) Pique Dame, they did bring that funky Cinderella. It is retold as a story within a story… the protagonist in the title role is really the housekeeper of “the storyteller” and becomes Cinderella by playing the part in his spun tale.

It all starts on the storyteller’s little planet (very much a “The Little Prince” scene) and spins concentric circles around it – with his helpers (ravens, teacups, a teapot, spoons, a broom, grasshoppers, dragonflies, sunflowers, bullfinches, horses et al.) aiding him and Cinderella and friends all throughout the ballet. From a starry night on his moon-rock it is only a few lightweight steps for Svetlana Zakharova as Ptashka-(the helper) cum-Cinderella to chez stepmother, a box in the right corner of the stage. Out come Maria Volodina (stepmother), Anastasia Vinokur, and Lola Kochetkova (the stepsisters). The sisters put elegance to brilliant use in clumsy buffoonery as these big-boobed, rouge-drenched, obnoxious, bumbling bimbos. Whether they try to learn the latest dancing move from the dancing master (witty – and excellently danced by Gennady Yanin) or misbehave at the Prince’s party in those wild “Gone with the Wind” dresses, these two gals are outrageously funny, riotously silly, loveably over the top. Occasionally they had to catch themselves so as not to dance too well (they are supposed to be pathetic, after all) – but both deserve extra recognition of making such great fun of their own art, dancing clumsy so believably, and acting so astonishingly well in every detail of their movement.

Svetlana Zakharova, Photo by Marc HaegemanA little loop through the four seasons (Mlles. Stashkevich, Kurkova, Osipova, Kobakhidze as Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, respectively) comes courtesy of the storyteller when he readies Cinderella for the great ball: His helping fairies (aforementioned spoons, teacups et al.) look at first like half-naked Martian space-fairies but add to the lighthearted humor as does just about every other element in this first act. The choreography, furthermore, melts right into the music (those two sisters sliding down the staircase – along with the music – in act two makes me laugh, just recallingit) and convinces with its thoughtful details: A wiggle of the hip here, a coordinated nod of heads there… that’s sometimes all it takes for a cracked smile or a little spark of delight.

When the crowd at the prince’s party takes fuzzy orange balls (laced dessert oranges, say the program notes, but also a visual link to the pumpkin in which Cinderella arrived), the audience giggled along with this perfect example of how whimsical, capricious, and bright-eyed the best moments of this production are. Over an almost childish joy about all this fancy, dreamlike concoction, it was almost possible to forget or overlook the few more serious parts that gave Ms. Zakharova and Sergey Filin’s prince a chance to show just how fine a pair of dancers they are. Svetlana Zakharova, currently one of the most reputable and admired Prima Ballerinas in Russia, is rather tall for a lady of her profession and looks lanky at first… but always controlled and displaying a sort-of old-fashioned, slightly stiff or shy elegance. But a few moves and she has you under her spell. (She must be a perfect swan!) Her arms are so light as you will rarely see, her limbs regal, straight, and made of rubber at the joints. She can turn on a soft charm akin to Audrey Hepburn’s or mix it with the wide-eyed excitement reminding of Sarah Michelle Gellar. Together with the dashing and handsome prince, their dancing was exquisite in between the romp and the fun.

Time flies in this production; neither of the two intermissions is as keenly desired as they often are in opera. The wild ride continues in the third act, even if the production seems to try harder here and loses a little of the effortless lightness. Still, the very lively horses (dancers with pony-tails, Dressage hats, and horse-tail) carrying the prince and his buddies from one shoe-fitting stop to the next (meeting Heinrich Mann’s “Blue Angel” from his Novel “Professor Unrat” – popularized by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film – along the way) are just one more example of the creativity that went into creating this tale. The end – with those outrageous sisters again – is as funny as it is ultimately touching.

It wouldn’t be the same without the music. While the WNO orchestra made more or less a hash out of Romeo & Juliet when the Kirov was here, they performed admirably under Igor Dronov (who was projected onto the back of the stage in the prelude to the second act) and surprised repeatedly with its distinct and evocative coloring. There are musical calling cards that link the two ballets – and if the Romeo & Juliet score is good already, Cinderella’s might be even better. In combination with this lovingly presented production, it makes for unadulterated delight.