“I knew it would work, because it is Cinderella and Cinderella always works.” – Mike Nichols
No fooling, I happened to read that quote just moments before I left the house to attend the opening night of the Louisville Ballet’s production of that most classic of fairy tales. Never mind that it is in reference to another, modern day update of the story. It hung in my head as the curtain rose in Whitney Hall, lending the proceedings an extra layer of expectation. Does Cinderella always work? The comment might also suggest that it works even if the presentation is sub-par. But do those words have any place in a sentence about the Louisville Ballet, except to be immediately dismissed?
Even a company with the best reputation might misstep, but there is little evidence in this glorious production, which revives the magnificent choreography of Alun Jones and Helen Starr. The movement alternates between extended scenes of expository dance and sweeping, romantic sequences that fully realize the magical elements of the story and provide an opportunity for some of the company’s lead performers to shine. The wicked and selfish ugly stepsisters are played to the hilt by Robert Dunbar and Rob Morrow, essayed in slapstick action that seems almost random, but in truth are as detailed and specific as only good choreography and disciplined dancers can execute.
Cinderella herself arrives in the person of Natalia Ashikhmina, and is rendered with the utmost grace and delicacy. Once she is joined with her Prince, Kristopher Wojtera, the resulting love story is effectively told, and the heart of the fantasy brought vividly to life: love at first sight, someday your prince will come, etc. There is no need to belabor a synopsis, for can there be anyone who doesn’t understand the appeal? These two performers – and Mr. Wojtera in particular, whose sleek, classic looks make him destined to play these fairy tale princes – perfectly capture the timelessness of the tale. Also worth mentioning is the work of Kazuki Ichihashi, who, playing the Prince’s Friend, is both breathtakingly athletic and adroitly comic in interactions with the Ugly Sisters.
Yet the production does not take Cinderella for granted, outfitting the stage with extravagant scenery and costumes, also from Mr. Jones. Of course, we have come to expect nothing less from this company. But the “Magic Garden” location of Act 1 – Scene 2, which looks more like a forest but is nonetheless impressive, and the ballroom where the first look of love occurs, are both stunning. When Cinderella makes her entrance into the ball, she is appropriately dressed in glittering white and silver, but the short dress is at first framed by a floor-length cape, her feet exposed so that she seems literally to levitate across the floor on pointe. And the scene wherein she first lays eyes on the party, from a platform above a double stairs, and the Prince first sees her is a lovely moment significant for its lack of movement, as the action freezes and the fairy tale tableau is allowed a moment to work its magic in stillness.
I was also struck by the presentation of the Fairy Godmother in more flamboyant style than might have been expected. As she introduces the four beautiful fairies of the four seasons, a vision of the character as an elemental force, a Mother Nature, if you will, is underscored, suggesting something more primal is at work than the more common versions of the story usually allow. Forget all thoughts of more mainstream, pixie-dusted, kindly women of a certain age. This is a female deity of genuine force and wisdom, and those foolish stepsisters never really had a chance.
In the third act, the slipper fits as expected, the narrative requirements economically dispatched so that Cinderella, her Prince, and the Fairy Godmother’s fairy attendants can deliver one last sequence of graceful movement before the curtain falls. It is a moment that easily invites indulgence in a quest for a grand finish, but here is characterized by taste and restraint that is wise for trusting the story and the happy ending it inevitably provides. Perhaps Cinderella does always work.
Editor’s Note: As always, some principle roles are double cast and may be performed by dancers other than those mentioned here.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner