Sunday, 13 November 2016

Cinderella Returns!

I just checked back to be sure -- and it is only two and a half years since the National Ballet last staged its brilliant, glittering, hilarious production of Cinderella.  Not surprising, really, since this James Kudelka ballet is such a sure-fire crowd pleaser -- and indeed, one of the best ballets to introduce someone who's not familiar with the art form.  I described the piece in detail in the post I wrote when it was done the last time:


This year, for various reasons, I decided to see the show twice in one day -- which, of course, means that I would see two different casts in the principal roles.  As always, the opportunity to draw comparisons and contrasts between different dancers in the same roles is a fascinating process -- and especially when the two performances are seen in such close proximity, on the same day!

The afternoon show featured the same lead couple as I saw in the production in 2014:  Jillian Vanstone as Cinderella and Naoya Ebe as the Prince.  In the evening, we had Sonia Rodriguez (on whom the role was created) and Guillaume Cote. 

It's no insult to the other dancers to suggest that most of the differences in the performances happened with the lead couples (I'll explain why a bit further on).

Vanstone and Ebe were the two dancers I saw in the lead roles in 2014, when both were making their role debuts.  What really struck me today was a depth and a feeling of honesty, of reality, about both of them.  His boredom with court life, her despair at her endless kitchen drudgery, both came across vividly and believably.  Their pas de deux in the ballroom scene was a thing of beauty, a true dance of courtship in which every move brought them an inch closer and a degree more open to each other.  The final moment of the ballet when the Prince lays his head upon Cinderella's lap brought tears to my eyes.

Rodriguez and Cote gave us a version of the lead couple with slight but significant shifts in tone and feeling.  I felt that Cote in the ballroom scene was just going through the motions -- for one thing, the boredom and ennui that Ebe presented so strongly seemed to be absent, although he did dance with plenty of energy.  Things got better in the pas de deux and by the time we got to Act 3 and the search for Cinderella, he was fully into the role and much more believably so.  The final pas de deux which ends the ballet, then, was wonderful.

Rodriguez differed from Vanstone in having a more lyrical, smoothly graceful line throughout her solo dances.  Vanstone was all youthful ebullience and energy (she always seems to be at her best when dancing well below her actual age -- think of her Alice or Act 1 of Sleeping Beauty) while Rodriguez came across as more thoughtful, more inward, perhaps more of a dreamer.  Both were treasurable performances.

What of the other dancers?  The other roles that are named in the programme are all, in varying degrees, comical roles.  The necessary comic business is built right into the choreography and so it's absolutely necessary to be spot-on with every move in order for the the absurdity to register with the audience.  Thus, there's not as much room to play within the roles as there is for the principal couple.

If there is a comic character who can bring her own special touches in abundance, it's Cinderella's dipsomaniac stepmother -- described before the show by Peter Ottmann as "a drunken cross between Kate Hepburn and Phyllis Diller."  That about covers it.  Rebekah Rimsay in the afternoon got the best mileage out of her attempts to dance in the dancing lesson in Act 1.  Lise-Marie Jourdain in the evening really milked the hilarious Act 3 sequence where she uses the drawers in a cabinet as a stepladder to reach the high shelf where her flask is concealed in what appears to be a coffee can!  Jourdain also upped the ante in her attempts to be sexy, by hitching up her hemlines and showing off her legs under her flaming red housecoat.

The two stepsisters make a great contrasted pair -- the blonde "leader" and the brunette myopic "follower".  Stephanie Hutchison (afternoon) and Tanya Howard (evening) both got maximum mileage out of the blonde sister's endless attempts to climb socially.  Rimsay and Jourdain traded the myopic sister between them, each one taking the part when the other was portraying stepmom.  Here, the honours went to Rimsay in the evening.  The part requires her to bend forward at the waist in her attempts to see clearly without her glasses -- and somehow, Rimsay always managed to bend forward apparently past the point of no return, without actually falling.  Also, her appealing puppy-dog look of "please love me" every time she got anywhere near the Prince was a total delight.  That's not to sell Jourdain short, by any means, for her stepsister in the afternoon was memorable for the sheer clumsiness she brought to the dance lesson.

All four of these fine dancers did magnificent work in the face of Kudelka's requirement that they dance for extended periods en pointe, but will stiff legs and locked knees.  What I said two and half years ago is still true:  "Hard to believe that two fine ballerinas could be so graceless."

As the two Hired Escorts who had to somehow squire these two loose cannons to the ball, we got Brent Parolin and Donald Thom in the afternoon, and Jonathan Renna and Piotr Stanczyk in the evening.  All four were excellent.  An "Oh, no, not again" facial expression is essential for these two parts.  So is a large degree of comic finesse, as they have to supply all the polish and veneer of sophistication for themselves and for the two stepsisters.  If Parolin and Thom generated a little more flash and dash in their efforts to keep up, Renna and Stanczyk were the hands-down winners for delicacy at the point where the girls leave without them and they have to exit hand in hand.  Thom in particular managed a great befuddled expression every time the myopic stepsister got away from him.

The search scene in Act 3, with its high speed world tour, presents wonderful opportunities for the Prince and his four Officers.  Without trying to sort out who was who in which show, I simply want to say that the ensemble work of the Officers in both performances was very strong.  As always, the fun reached its climax in the car-driving sequence.

One of the minor annoyances is the lack of casting information for several roles.  I'd love to pay specific tribute to the woman who portrayed the Spanish flamenco dancer with so much fire and come-hither seductive vibe in the evening show, but I couldn't tell through the makeup who she was and the programme didn't specify.  To call her solo "memorable" is a major understatement!

Kudelka's Cinderella uses the structure of the familiar story but successfully rewrites the rules on the fly and in the process makes everyone in the tale come across as more human, real, and believable.  In 2014, I called it "a Cinderella story for today" and I still wholeheartedly feel that.  But it's also one of the most comical shows the National Ballet presents in its repertoire.  The good news?  There are still eight more performances at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto before the show closes on November 20.