- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Kirov Ballet, steeped in the tradition of the legendary Marius Petipa’s 19th-century choreography, opened at the Kennedy Center Tuesday evening with a “Cinderella” choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky that is resolutely modern and high-tech.

Although this “Cinderella” (which the company will be dancing through Sunday) is a striking departure from most traditional story ballets, it is the Kirov’s core virtues of beautiful classical technique; flexible, ardent bodies; and grand style that win the day.

This production was commissioned by Kirov Artistic Director Makhar Vaziev, who has brought an interesting mix of historic reconstructions, Balanchine stagings and experimental works to his illustrious company.

“Cinderella’s” audience is greeted with a boldly geometric black-and-white front curtain patterned to look like spires, or maybe skyscrapers. Then, to the powerful Prokofiev score — given a lush performance by the Kennedy Center Orchestra under the direction of conductor Mikhail Agrest — the first act is set against a gigantic Tinkertoy set of metal girders, stairways and platforms.

The tone is brittle, even sour. Cinderella’s father is a shuffling drunk looking for a handout. He is pretty much of a sad sack in all versions, but this dysfunctional-family touch undoubtedly is part of the modernism concept.

Unlike the warmly comic characters played by men in drag in Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella,” the stepmother and the two ugly sisters are mean and endlessly annoying with their uninspired, over-the-top histrionics. The stepmother, given a zesty performance by Irma Nioradze in a bright orange wig, is most obnoxious.

Dancers representing the four seasons, a featured part of the first act, are — in a switch here — played by four men. Cinderella’s fairy godmother, called “Fairy Tramp” and dressed to fit the description, hobbles bent over double. Later, as she begins to work her magic, she gambols across the stage with amusing gusto.

But the magic transformation she effects happens offstage, so there is no magic. Cinderella exits in leotards and leg warmers and comes back in a pretty white ball gown. Surely, even in modern times we can hope for a little more sense of wonder in our lives.

The first act ends with the four-seasons men dancing and then dropping to the floor. Falling down to finish a variation seems to be one of the leitmotifs of this ballet.

After all this comes the second act, and it is glorious. The high-tech scenery is spacious and airy — a series of columns receding into the distance and a circle of lights suspended high above the stage.

Just when one is wondering if Mr. Ratmansky is capable of interesting choreography, he fills the stage with large-scale, stylish group dancing. He tops this with an outpouring of inspired, rapturous pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, given a consummate performance by Natalia Sologub and Andrei Merkuriev.

The large corps, elegantly costumed with slim evening gowns in shades of orange, gold and maroon for the women and white ties and tails for the men — complement the expansiveness of the set with fast-moving lines that cross and coalesce, their arms occasionally giving an art-deco look to the choreography.

After the sleek sophistication of their dancing, the stage empties. Cinderella and her Prince, alone together, awaken to each other, moving with melting softness. Miss Sologub swoons in her partner’s embrace. Mr. Merkuriev, who bears a resemblance to American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel, holds her aloft and carries her in rapturous, sweeping lifts. The two dancers were breathtaking in their extended duets. Their traveling jetes, soaring high above the stage, looked effortless. It was a performance to treasure, and the two will perform it again tomorrow. (Diana Vishneva and Igor Kolb will perform the leads tonight and Saturday evening, with Irina Golub and Mr. Merkuriev dancing the lovers Saturday afternoon and Miss Sologub and Mr. Kolb finishing the run at the Sunday matinee.)

As the clock strikes 12, breaking the Fairy Tramp’s spell, the scene ends — with Cinderella falling to the ground.

The third act, anticlimactic here as in most versions, returns to the scaffolding scenery. The stepmother and stepsisters are up to their old tricks; the father is still looking for a handout.

The finale recapitulates the earlier ecstatic tone as the Prince finds his Cinderella, and their romantic passion translates into the elegant language of their final duet.

***

WHAT: Kirov Ballet in “Cinderella”

WHEN: Tonight through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $47 to $112

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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