Cendrillon is the manic-pixie dream girl contemporary ballet. It’s “different” and “edgy” – the wicked step sisters have undergone extreme plastic surgery and the fairy godmother is all hyped up on adderall. In its quest to be different, it loses the charm (okay, maybe not charm, but at least the cohesive feel) of the original Cinderella.
Jean Christophe-Malliot is the same guy who choreographed the exciting Romeo et Juliet that I saw last year. That was the ballet that really made me decide that I loved contemporary ballet.
Which was why Cendrillon was a little disappointing.
It premiered on Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in 1999, making it relatively young in ballet years, though it still uses Prokofiev’s enchanting score. Jean Christophe-Malliot said fuck it to the broom, the pumpkin, the ballgown, the fireplace, the male-as-ugly stepsisters and dumb stepmother. The father stays alive in this version, and the fairy god mother is a reincarnation of Cinderella’s mother. These are all great subversions that provide for spectacle, albeit unorthodox spectacle.
The mice are replaced by mannequins *magical mannequins of course.* Because the step family is so obsessed with appearances and chases physical beauty, supposedly the mannequins are kept in the house so they can try on clothes. It’s a cute idea, and well executed, as the mannequins, played by men and who look vaguely like crash test dummies from far away, flop about and provide the comic relief.
He made the stepmother a seductress, the stepsisters emotionally abusive, and he kept the father alive, keeping him as a character to be tossed around by the new family who demand that he forget his dead wife. These grotesque characters are dressed as such, in extravagant and so-weird-they’re-cool costumes, like the stepmother’s predatory tail-tutu and the step sisters’ asymmetrical panniers.
Jerome Kaplan created a fantastic and unusual set of costumes for this show. The fact that Cinderella is dressed in a plain white slip without pointe shoes is a great way to show that she’s young, innocent, and beautiful because she’s beautiful, not because she’s full of botox. She doesn’t need crazy, artificial hair styles or shoes to make her lovely. Instead of a glass slipper, her feet are dipped in gold glitter. Amazing (even if we couldn’t really see it from the “second tier balcony” which is a euphemism for “you shoulda brought binoculars and you’re lucky we even let you riff raff into the theater lol”). The visual symbolism is fantastic and works.
What doesn’t work is that Christophe-Malliot is so determined to show the audience that his Cinderella isn’t your typical Cinderella that it all gets lost. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees. You couldn’t see the ballet for the pantomime, the story for the plot-pointes that are thrown at you.
There really is very little dancing. The dancers never really got to do much before they had to break and pantomime the next thing. The ballet was more concerned with progressing the plot than the dancing. If you want to retell Cinderella in that detail, then write it down and make it a story. Or at least trust the audience to pick up on the differences – we don’t need a bunch of small gestures from the step family to tell us that they’re concerned with appearances – we can tell by the clothes. And though I’m a huge fan of gestural work, it doesn’t read the same in a huge venue where the dancers are far away. It didn’t quite go with the big balletic movements either.
Gia Kourlas, of the New York Times, said it best in her concise review: Yet this Cinderella – with more than three pages of program notes – is too busy with its back story to make much space for dancing. It’s just pantomime and poses.
The prince has an entire backstory of his own that is completely lost. We see that he’s got four friends (friends? Attendants? Are they paid or are they shills? The program tells us but the work itself doesn’t) who he chills with. It’s exciting to watch the men perform their many beats and high jumps, but they don’t get much opportunity to show off, because Christophe-Malliot is trying so hard to show us that the prince “tries to give meaning to his life by small pleasures, which disappoint him as soon as they are satisfied” (from the program notes). There’s a whole thing later where the fairy godmother blindfolds the prince and he had to find true beauty not with his eyes and runs across Cinderella, but it just doesn’t read.
The fairy godmother. God, what a fantastic performance by Noelani Pantastico. It reminded me of the Cupid variation from Don Quixote, but on crack. The fairy godmother is sort of the reincarnation of the mother, and the father has a sort of vision of her, and he’s emotionally destraught, but again, this doesn’t really read super well. There’s a scene at the ball where the fairy godmother is dancing with the Pleasure Superintendents, and the prince is wandering around blindfolded, and Cinderella is on the staircase, and the father is watching this all happen from behind a chair – can you even tell what’s going on? I could, just barely, because I had my critical-eye-composition-cam on in my brain.
The dancers were all fantastic, like always. Their lines always read even from up in the nosebleed section, and all of their pointe work was on point. My complaint about that, though, was that the choreography didn’t at all lend itself to pointe. They were barely up there. It was important for them to be on pointe, because Cinderella needed to be barefoot (“Cinderella is simplicity incarnate,” says the program notes). But why not choreograph something at utilizes the pointe shoe? I’ve got no problem with soft-shoe dancing, but again, Christophe-Malliot was so determined to show us Cinderella’s beautiful simplicity that he sacrificed literally 99% of the other dancers to do it.
It’s upsetting that such amazing dancers weren’t able to dance more in this piece, which had great costumes and a simplistic but brilliant set by Ernetst Pignon-Ernest and lighting by Dominique Drillot.
This ballet is an example of when the choreographer doesn’t trust the audience. He wanted to show us that the step family and the palace are superficial rather than trusting we’d get it by the costumes and lighting and setting. He didn’t trust us to understand Cinderella was pure and beautiful because of her rejection of the falsehoods.
This ballet was also a victim of not having a clear-cut audience. It’s more about the pantomime and spectacle than the dancing, but the dancing isn’t necessarily appropriate for the kids. The stepfamily is quite seductive and provocative in the way they are portrayed – the stepmother’s costume is a sexy corset and stays, and other women try to seduce the prince when he searches for Cinderella. And there’s so much going on in the background, like how we’re supposed to pick up on the fact that this ballet is a reflection on mourning and grief and getting over the past, which didn’t read at all – that there’s no way a younger audience member would be able to follow it. Cinderella is supposed to be searching for answers, but we hardly get to see Cinderella dance; she’s mostly there as an excuse for the other characters to have something to react to. This ballet wasn’t geared towards kids/families (like the Nutcracker) or toward ballet enthusiasts (like Forgotten Land).
Cendrillon is a valiant attempt but ultimately a failure of composition. It was expertly performed by strong dancers, but even they couldn’t un-muddle this mix of ingredients.
I stole the photos from PNB’s website. Here is more information (and 80 pages of program notes) for Cendrillon.