Is there anything prima ballerina Diana Vishneva cannot do? Having recently turned 39, this reigning Goddess of the dance world (one who also commissions works made expressly for her), seems to be at the height of her powers—physically, emotionally and, possibly even spiritually—as she infuses every step, every swoop of her arms, indeed, her entire being, with breathtaking beauty, grace and a generous humanity.
Completely inhabiting the role of the oppressed heroine who snags her prince, La Vishneva owns the stage in this choreography first performed in St. Petersburg in 2002, a commission for the Mariinsky Theatre created by Alexei Ratmansky. (Two different ballerinas, Anastasia Matvienko and Nadezhda Batoeva are scheduled to dance the lead in the remaining performances, along with other cast changes.)
Shortly after this “Cinderella” was made, Ratmansky was propelled onto the global stage: His ability to animate forgotten works such as 2003’s “The Bright Stream,” as well as reinvigorating chestnuts, including his 2010 “Nutcracker” for American Ballet Theatre (it makes it West Coast premiere at Segerstrom Center for the Arts December 10-20,) has cemented his position in the choreographic firmament.
Add to the ballet the lush, vigorous and brilliantly chromaticized sounds of Prokofiev’s 1945 brooding score, with American-born Gavriel Heine deftly helming the glorious 64-piece Mariinsky Orchestra, and this is a “Cinderella” to remember.
It is, however, not your mother’s “Cinderella.” Indeed, minimal/modernist to the point of being anti-romantic (and suggesting the Depression years of the 1930s), Ratmansky has a ball—literally—with a large, rotating overhead wheel that, depending on its position, could be the story’s ticking clock, a Navajo dreamcatcher, or a kind of “Phantom of the Opera” chandelier.
This dramatic disk (circle of life), is a perfect accent to Ilya Utkin’s and Evgeny Monakhov’s stage design, which also includes a drop-cloth and steel-framed fire escape-like set evocative of “West Side Story,” the latter also serving as an act III nod to the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet” (a classic Ratmansky has yet to tackle).
Both bowing to ballet tradition and subverting it, the choreographer has delivered a fresh take on the European folk tale with trenchant humor underscored by a decidedly mean streak. This is evident in Cinderella’s demonic/demented stepmother, Sofia Gumerova, bewigged in a bright orange, cartoon-like bob (think Carol Burnett meets Lucille Ball). A big, muscular dancer that could be a man portraying a woman but might, instead, have been cast to look like a woman meant to resemble a man playing a woman, this is gender confusion gone amok.
Narcissistic and over-the-top in her leggy, knock-kneed moves, she, of course, has two not-so-nice offspring, Khudishka (Margarita Frolova) and Kubishka (Ekaterina Ivannikova). Technically adroit and able to pantomime and mug with the best (or worst?), of them, these gals also sport various ensembles that run the gamut from faux dominatrix to Can-Can garb (costume design by Elena Markovskaya).
Then there is our lady of the cinders. Does one really expect to see Vishneva wielding a broom and looking overly forlorn? Not exactly! But alternating between a sad-faced urchin and wistful dreamer, this ballerina offers an exquisite line, her every relevé and tilt of the head achingly beautiful.
As she watches her stepfamily fussed over by a trio of hairdressers (Oleg Demchenko, Fedor Murashov, Denis Zainetdinov), her fate seems sealed, i.e., doomed, surrounded, as she is, by buffoonery and grotesqueries—knife-like gambits and a sharp, spiky movement idiom that is the polar opposite of hers.
Cinderella’s fairy godmother (Elena Bazhenova), is another story: Re-imagined as a fairy-tramp, this is a hunched old woman who creeps around the stage, albeit with a soupçon of lively footwork at the ready, and a tote bag filled with what looked to be small pumpkins. The four seasons, ostensibly representing time and change, bring quasi-punk bravura and bright colors (along with Mohawk hairdos and longish fright wigs), a shock of the semi-new in their exuberent dancing (Vasily Tkachenko, Alexey Popov, Konstantin Ivkin and Andrey Soloviev).
There is no coach to transport Miss C. to Ratmansky’s ball, but, dressed in a flowy white Romantic-era type tutu she will certainly be the belle of it, with Prokofiev’s hauntingly dark waltz ending act I and threaded through the expansive, superbly danced corps-driven act II, during which time she and her prince will meet—not cute—but fervent.
When the curtain (a rough rendition of a city skyline), again rises, the be-gloved men are in tuxes and the women, slinky in long swirling gowns, a riot of orange and marigold, there is a charm school quality to their unisons and equine-esque moves. But these party-goers are, in a word, delectable. Vain and apathetic, sure, yet they’re a wonder to behold as they deploy sharp-edged arms and torso dips. And, in a kind of xenophobic-inspired admiration, the corps unexpectedly claps after Cinderella offers a slice of her own demure dancing.
Enter, then, the prince (a tall, suave Konstantin Zverev). Dressed in milkman-white, he makes an entrance with a burst of cabrioles, eventually partnering this shy creature whose rapture, evident in her Plisetskaya-like limbs, dazzling extensions and beatific face, is so clearly felt. Able to make the most of Ratmansky’s Balanchinean-influenced steps (swift changes of direction, angled legs), La Vishneva also has an ironclad meticulousness that enables her to fluidly soften into Zverev’s arms.
A good match, the pairing does feel somewhat overshadowed by Vishneva’s sheer presence. And with time not on Cinderella’s side, there is an urgency to her dancing, a tearing at heart strings that not only elevates her to almost otherworldly, but to ballet’s highest realms and ideals.
Busy-in-a-good way, act III brings a Folies Bergère sensibility, with the prince a bit bushwacked as he hunts for his girl in male and female houses of ill repute. When he does find her, Cinderella is cowering on a balcony, nearly unseen (if that is at all possible with Vishneva). This shrinking violet is a most precious rose, the pair’s final pas de deux a gorgeous dance of yearning, satiation and freedom, to the lovely backdrop of tiny twinkling stars.
In the case of this “Cinderella,” the shoe surely fits.