Alexei Ratmansky's minimalist “Cinderella,” 18 years on
The Mariinsky Ballet: “Cinderella” Mariinsky TV, August 10, 2020
When Alexei Ratmansky was commissioned to create a new version of “Cinderella” for the Mariinsky Ballet, in 2002, he was an up-and-coming choreographer, virtually unknown in the West. In Russia, however, he was already regarded as a promising talent and a new hope.
In fact, Ratmansky’s first success—and critical acclaim—as a choreographer came with a handful of short pieces, which he created for Russia’s two eminent ballet companies: the Bolshoi (“Capriccio” and “The Charms of Mannerism,” both from 1997, and “Dreams of Japan” (1998) and the Mariinsky (“The Fairy’s Kiss,” “Middle Duet,” and “The Poem of Ecstasy,” all from 1998). “Cinderella” for the Mariinsky was Alexei Ratmansky’s first full-length ballet.
The new production of “Cinderella” was met with a certain degree of resistance and skepticism in St. Petersburg. “This premiere was extremely feared. The Petersburg ballet community was scandalized even before the dress rehearsal, seeing in “Cinderella” not just a performance, but an action,” reported the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
The reason for resistance and qualm was obvious—as it turned out, the new Cinderella team, which included Ratmansky (St. Petersburg-born, the Bolshoi-trained, but still best known at that time as a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet) and Ilya Utkin (an award-winning architect, famous for his slick paper drawings) was aiming to dismantle and replace the legendary and historic (thus deemed by many to be untouchable) production of “Cinderella,” created by Konstantin Sergeyev (1910-1992), the long-serving artistic director of the Mariinsky Ballet and the choreographer of the company’s very first Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” (1946) and of its two subsequent revisions (1964, 1982).
To fuel the controversy further—and, understandably, to ignite the audience’s enthusiasm—the ballet’s premiere was scheduled on March 5, 2002, which happened to be the day of the anniversary of Prokofiev’s death and the birthday anniversary of Sergeyev. “Thus Ratmansky’s “Cinderella” . . . was not only to tear down the post-war Sergeyev’s production to the ground—there was a premeditated mockery of the memory of the founding fathers,” dance critic, Yulia Yakovleva wrote in Kommersant, describing the prevailing negative public sentiment surrounding the new ballet.
All the fears and doubts notwithstanding, the premiere of new “Cinderella” was a resounding success, particularly with St. Petersburg’s young audiences, who embraced Ratmansky’s bracingly fresh and bold vision of the old fairy-tale. This year, his “Cinderella” turned 18 years old and is doing admirably well. During the past four months, the company was streaming on and off the 2013 recording of this production, featuring Diana Vishneva in the title role and Vladimir Shklyarov in the role of the Prince.
Sergei Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” was a child of war. The composer began working on his score for the new ballet in 1940, having received a commission from the Kirov (the Mariinsky) Theater, stimulated by the huge acclaim of his “Romeo and Juliet.” Yet the work on “Cinderella” was interrupted and postponed by the Second World War as Prokofiev entirely immersed himself in the composition of his opera “War and Peace,” a more important and patriotic project, given the urgency and gravity of the time. He completed his “Cinderella” only four years later, and the premiere of the ballet took place not at the Mariinsky Theater in Leningrad, as was initially planned, but at the Bolshoi in Moscow, in 1945, with the choreography by Rostislav Zakharov. Only in 1946, the Mariinsky unveiled its own version of “Cinderella,” staged by Sergeyev.
Although different in scale (the Bolshoi’s version was far more opulent-looking than the Kirov’s), both post-war productions of “Cinderella” had one thing in common: it was a fairy-tale ballet, full of magic, tulle and wonder—a glittering spectacle, in which good triumphed over evil, promising hope for a better life, more contented and prosperous, offering an escape into a fairyland for the impoverished people of the pompous country.
There are a number of videos on YouTube, which, despite their less-than-ideal quality, give a good sense of what the original Russian “Cinderella” looked like before the modern versions took hold, most notably the 1985 dance-film version of the Mariinsky and the 1960 dance-film version of the Bolshoi, a widely-known and beloved rendition of the ballet in Russia. And, there is a truly unique video, from 1991, in which Ratmansky himself, then the 23-year-old dancer with the Kiev Ballet of Ukraine, performs the role of the Prince—youth and charm personified, topped with a golden crown.
In Ratmansky’s contemporary revision of “Cinderella,” there is hardly a trace of the traditional fairy-tale. The choreographer and the set designers (Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov) created a thoroughly modern production; its concept and means are worlds apart from the storybook approach of the ornate original staging of the ballet. The designs, in particular, serve as a visual alert that this “Cinderella” is of a different kind of magic.
I saw this production in a live performance when the Mariinsky Ballet brought it to the Kennedy Center Opera House in 2012. And I vividly remember the unusual yet striking front curtain of “Cinderella,” a mural-size cloth depicting a conglomeration of high-rise apartment buildings, something akin of Manhattan’s skyline. When the curtain opened, the stage revealed Cinderella’s apartment—a grim and uninviting industrial loft, its dark space squeezed by scaffolding and two steel staircases, all set against a flaming-red background.
The minimal and austere stage décor dominated the entire production. A gigantic metal circle in the middle of the stage functioned as a fateful clock, which in the ballroom scene turned into a grand chandelier. The Prince’s palace was conveyed by a huge black-and-white drawing; its imposing size and visual grandeur notwithstanding, the place looked as empty and lifeless as Cinderella’s dingy tenement.
As I was watching and re-watching the recording of the ballet, I couldn’t help thinking just how aptly and precisely this “Cinderella” mirrors the acerbic irony and the sleek modernism of Prokofiev’s score: throughout the ballet, Ratmansky’s choreography underscores the sarcastic and grotesque elements of the music, thus honoring, in many ways, the composer’s life-long fondness for caricature. And the more I watched the ballet the more I appreciated Ratmansky’s daring and novel treatment of the story—and his sharp yet sensitive sense of humor.
Even though the ballet is set in modern times, Ratmansky closely follows the familiar plot. In the first act, dressed in leg warmers, a simple light-blue tunic and a sweater, his Cinderella looks like an ordinary young girl—a girl next door—who has to tolerate and deal with the unpleasant and often turbulent co-living with her dysfunctional family. Her mother is long dead (we see a glimpse of her in a brief poignant moment when Cinderella recalls the happy days of childhood); her father is a pathetic drunk; and her stepmother (the superb Ekaterina Kondaurova) and stepsisters are a bad-mannered, tantrum-prone clique—an explosion of nervous energy and obsession. Feeling so desperately lonely and miserable in this ugly environment, Cinderella is not as much tormented as she is isolated and unloved. To give a sense of purpose to her dismal existence, she never stops moving: when she is not polishing the staircase or scrubbing the floor, she is dancing. Her dance steps are tentative and awkward in the beginning, yet you can sense a strong current of sheer excitement rushing through her body with every movement as she becomes vibrant, alive and utterly happy, feeling nothing but a thrilling sense of freedom.
Cinderella’s fortune changes with the appearance of her Godmother. Clad in multiple layers, wearing heavy wool socks and big rain shoes, complete with a long white scarf and a frightful makeup, she is known here as Fairy-Tramp. An eccentric but endlessly resourceful character, she radiates self-assurance and determination and takes charge of Cinderella’s destiny, stirring it into a favorable direction.
There is no pumpkin in this production, no magic transformation and no glorious entrance to the ball for the title heroine. The Godmother casually pulls out the ball gown (a simple long white dress) and the sparkling slippers from her grocery bag, and a quartet of bizarre-looking men (the Four Seasons), their faces painted to match their brightly-colored costumes, deliver the incredulous Cinderella, in a short evocation of flight, right to the Royal Palace.
In his treatment of “Cinderella,” Ratmansky’s ideas and his choreographic language are bold and unconventional, yet he doesn’t always succeed. The choreography for all the characters, with the exception of Cinderella and the Prince, relies predominantly on comedy and slapstick and it works most of the time until it doesn’t. There are a few obvious misfires, including the dull Four Seasons variations and the ill-conceived search by the Prince for the owner of the lost slipper in the third act. Did he really expect to find his Cinderella in a brothel or a gay bar?
The choreography—and the ballet—really takes flight in the second act. In this production, Ratmansky saved his most imaginative ideas—and created his best steps—for the two principal characters of the story. The loveliest sequences of this “Cinderella” belong to the love duets of the title heroine and her Prince. Their dancing—purely classical in style and exquisite in manner—deftly reflected the surge of emotions and budding love that the two young people were experiencing for the first time. And here Ratmansky’s choreography beautifully mirrors the passion, the lyricism, and the poignancy of Prokofiev’s music.
Diana Vishneva was ideally cast as Cinderella. It’s a challenging role for its artistic and technical demands and Vishneva made her character a genuine person—the ballerina believed in the plight of her heroine and so did the audience. You could feel the pain and anguish of Cinderella’s pitiful existence in the first act just by looking in Vishneva’s large brown eyes, full of sorrow and anguish. (Watching the ballet on film brings out myriad of new angles, including amazing close-ups.) Vishneva was utterly believable whether she was playing a sweet and clumsy cleaning girl or a beautiful and elegantly dressed young woman on the cusp of love. Her dancing was spectacular throughout, transcending the choreography and giving the ballet a new layer of excitement and appeal.
As the Prince, the handsome and animated Vladimir Shklyarov was a perfect match for Vishneva’s nuanced Cinderella. He was technically strong and dramatically effective from his first entrance to the ballroom as he crossed the stage in a series of impressive jetés, dressed in a blindingly white suit. His partnering of Vishneva was polished, sensitive and confident and there was a palpable sense of romance—and a feeling of that giddy happiness—in their immensely enjoyable love duets. They were two soul mates, two lonely people who found each other under the most improbable circumstances, giving each other this new blossoming love and hope for happily-ever-after. They brought out grace, poetry and lyricism in their dancing, so the ballet itself became more exciting and expressive, reminding us again and again that Prokofiev’s music was first and foremost about the story of love.