The American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House on Friday, June 9.
Countless little girls attended the American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Cinderella Friday night, and I wonder what they thought of it. For those who only know Cinderella through Disney, Sergei Prokofiev’s score might be something of a shock. Prokofiev, one of the masters of the twentieth century, was not a bibbidi-bobbidi-boo sort of composer, and he certainly didn’t write anything for a chorus of shrill, squeaky mice. His Cinderella is darkly shaded, with some truly eerie moments. The midnight music, marking Cinderella’s punishment for breaking curfew, sounds almost menacing, not physically so — this isn’t a Grimm story with amputated toes and Hitchcockian birds — but psychologically. Prokofiev understands what it would mean to have the substance of your dreams vanish at the stroke of a clock.
James Kudelka’s choreography, given its New York premiere by the American Ballet Theatre, beautifully captures Prokofiev’s evocative music. Following the composer’s lead, Kudelka eschews both the violent Grimm telling and the syrupy Disney version. His story has a haunting sense of fantasy, letting Cinderella’s dreamworld seep into her reality, recede and then re-establish itself with greater strength and newfound maturity.
Kudelka also goes out of his way to neutralize the retrograde concept of a man swooping in to rescue the helpless female. In an inspired touch, his Cinderella dances most of the first act barefoot until her Fairy Godmother gives her a pair of toe shoes. Wearing those, she literally grows up; even after she loses one of the shoes at the ball, she dances persistently — and with surprising elegance, considering the circumstances — with the remaining shoe.
On Friday night, Gillian Murphy danced the role of Cinderella with an endearing twitch of impudence. Her Prince, David Hallberg, seemed to have achieved the throne by virtue of his truly spectacular leaps. The stepsisters (played by women, in a break from custom) were crowd pleasers with their graceful gracelessness, but my favorites were the Fairy Godmother’s four garden spirits, who prepare Cinderella for the ball and accompany her there as well. Each of the dancers had a solo of her own, and Kudelka created a jazzy, distinctive dance for each.
He also managed to convey a strong connection between Cinderella and the Prince. Before they ever dance together, they dance in unison, a matched pair, and when they do finally connect, the choreography turns deeply passionate: arched backs and enormous lifts. But it’s not all raw physicality. When the Prince kisses Cinderella, she dances a few giddy steps and returns the kiss, inspiring the Prince to echo her movements with a giddy dance of his own.
The dazzling choreography, the mastery with which it was executed, and the gentle humanity of the characterizations won me over in spite of myself, for Cinderella has never been a beloved story of mine. I was a contrary little girl, fond of telling others that the life of a real princess is not what the fairy tales would have us imagine. So the narrative choice that ultimately won me over was one of the last: Cinderella and the Prince don’t depart for the castle after their wedding. They return to Cinderella’s garden and make their home there. It’s a choice Prokofiev surely would have appreciated: He concludes the ballet not with pomp and circumstance but with a tender amoroso. Why settle for a heavy crown and a pedestal when you can share a warm hearth and a magical pumpkin?