Last Thursday, I took a trip down the rabbit hole — with a thousand or so of my closest friends.
Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Cinderella, which came to New York City Center with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo from February 18 through 21, is a handful of fairy tales rolled into one: an odyssey through Wonderland interwoven with a seductive masquerade and a tragic sketch of a star-crossed romance. Maillot thrives on chaos, and from the plotline to the choreography, there is plenty of it in this work. Yet the overall effect is not disagreeable. It simply demands a greater suspension of disbelief and a more decided appreciation for whimsy than does the standard fantasy.
For the most part, the story is in sync with the rags-to-riches legend popularized in Western culture beginning in the 17th century. Maillot’s interpretation shifts the spotlight somewhat to the side of its titular heroine, however, bringing the tragedy of her mother’s death and the ensuing fall of her doting (but apparently milquetoast) father into inventive focus. The fairy godmother role is subsumed into that of the departed mother (deemed, simply, the Fairy) while the Stepmother and Stepsisters are full-on harpies. And a passel of colorful secondary characters, including the curiously named Pleasure Superintendents and the Prince’s cadre of fun-loving friends, help both to push along and to dutifully distract from the plot. (Side note: Those Pleasure Superintendents are slippery creatures. Are they attendants to the stepfamily? Surrogates for the Fairy? I remain perplexed. Regardless, they did, indeed, seem whole-heartedly committed to ensuring universal pleasure.) With these amplified archetypes in place, Maillot is able to flip the standard classical ballet ratio of drama to comedy on its head, seasoning three parts farce with a soupçon of gravity and lyricism instead of the other way around.
The spare set design, which comprises a handful of moveable white partial walls that double as mirrors when flipped, makes the production’s tendency toward anarchy palatable rather than unnerving. The costumes — predominantly either plain (Cinderella’s A-line day dress and ball “gown”), deconstructed (the corsets defining the figures of the vampish Stepmother and her daughters), or unobtrusive in their splendor (the Fairy’s glittering body paint and tiny plate-like tutu) — mostly stay out of the way, unless called upon to play a role in the action. And the lighting is pleasantly predictable, remaining bright and stable throughout passages key to the narrative and dimming to intensify atmospheric episodes, as in portions of the ball scene.
Maillot’s choreographic prowess is most evident in ensemble sections, during which he allows the music a pronounced, satisfying influence over the geometric intricacy of the movement. In contrast, many of his solos and duets seem to be set askew on top of the score, not entirely gelling with Prokofiev’s opinionated compositions. Perhaps that is the intended effect, a subtle device used to highlight moments of drama amidst the general levity of the production. Nonetheless, the group passages make more of an impact.
Maillot does particularly refreshing work with fours, as in the pas de quatre for the Fairy, the Father, Cinderella, and the Prince. At times moving in unison, at others breaking into private interludes, the two couples paint a silky picture of their echoed love stories. It is a tranquil pause, well placed before the inevitable midnight maelstrom.
Another notable quartet features a set of grotesquely appointed sirens channeling La Bayadère’s Nikia at her most solemn and sensuous (though without her innocence of soul) as they attempt to deter the besotted Prince in his post-ball pursuit of Cinderella. Mesmeric and heady, this incident arrives as a peculiar but not unwelcome break in the action.
The dancers, each exuding a unique brand of lively athleticism, offered many laudable performances from opening scene to final curtain. Mimoza Koike was the standout star, inhabiting the complex choreography assigned to the Fairy with aplomb. (She also figuratively and literally sparkled in the aforementioned body paint.) I could only have wished for a greater modicum of warmth in her depiction, especially in interactions with her daughter. Anjara Ballesteros was fittingly graceful and endearing as Cinderella, though her character was given few choreographic opportunities to shine. As the imperious Stepmother, Maude Sabourin was the ideal adversary for Koike, meeting the Fairy’s refined command with a fiery (and ultimately self-destructive) ambition. And in their portrayal of the Pleasure Superintendents, brothers Alexis and George Oliveira were every bit as mirthful and quirkily entertaining as the production itself.
On the whole, Maillot’s Cinderella is a bit of a quagmire — and I thoroughly enjoyed splashing through it.