Sunday, October 19, 2008

Smashing pumpkin

Lorna Feijóo as Cinderella, before the other shoe drops.

There's real magic in James Kudelka's Cinderella (being revived by Boston Ballet through October 26); you just won't find it in the dancing. Perhaps that's okay; certainly the production's imagery - its spooky pumpkinheads and eerie cabbage patch and witty, almost cinematic sequences - stay with you, and will haunt and enchant your average eight-year-old girl, who is and will always be this fable's target. So I suppose the rest of us can ignore the surprising lack of interest in much of Kudelka's choreography - I only feel a bit sorry for the Ballet's terrific dancers (and composer Sergei Prokofiev!) who really deserve better.

But back to that magic.

Taking a cue, apparently, from Matthew Bourne's "gay' Swan Lake, which skewered the Royal Family and played like a staged Michael Powell movie, Kudelka has devised a witty "update" for his fairy tale, plunking it down in a bold Jazz Age milieu designed by the talented David Boechler. And he's come up with all kinds of smart staging ideas, too, many of which are welcome and genuinely insightful: the glass slipper here becomes a toe shoe, for example - it's a perfect symbol of romantic maturity - and Cinderella has a neat little solo in which she hobbles around on just one. (This in stark contrast to her stepsisters, who walk around en pointe, but can't dance to save their lives.) And Prince Charming's search for his beloved (with that other slipper in hand) now literally covers the globe in an amusing montage, during which every foreign lass he encounters is wearing her national shoe (or clog, or ski). There are other wonderful moments: Cinderella's coach is now a luminous pumpkin that descends like a harvest moon, and she has ominous pumpkin-headed attendants, too, who ring down midnight (and even strip off her gown) with frightening violence. And interestingly, Kudelka has restyled the story as a rejection of the palace and its paparazzi, and centered it instead around the discovery of Cinderella's intrinsic goodness; she doesn't get her man, he gets her, and contentedly settles down with her by the hearth in her cottage in the cabbage patch.

So this production is never dull - until people start actually dancing; then suddenly our interest flags. Kudelka seems bursting with ideas about the story and its characters, but doesn't seem interested in any musical ideas. True, the Jazz Age is rather far from the elegant melancholy of Prokofiev's score, which often touches down in Eastern European folk sources (the autumnal sets key into this, at least), and we hardly expect Kudelka to do much with the Charleston (which takes a bow at the ball). But can't we have the wonderful staging and a little choreographic inspiration, too? The solos and duets simply don't go anywhere; Kudelka doesn't work through variations with any rigor, or even really posit any motifs, besides the obvious narrative ones of "Cinderella's sweeping" or "The Prince is falling in love." He actually saves his best stuff for the wicked stepsisters, who here aren't so much wicked as goofy: Kudelka dreams up endless ways for them to flounder on the dance floor, and the vampy Kathleen Breen Combes and the bespectacled Heather Myers play all of them to the hilt (they end up dancing with each other). As Cinderella, Lorna Feijóo was, as usual, technical perfection, but there wasn't much here to faze her, and although she was plenty winsome in the kitchen, she couldn't work up much chemistry with her Prince Charming, Carlos Molina (who had a confident élan in his solos, but proved an inattentive partner). The corps was in particularly good form during the ball, which was choreographed in patterned blocks (recalling such movie sequences as the climax of An American in Paris). And down in the pit, Jonathan McPhee and the Ballet Orchestra did full justice to the score; it's just too bad Kudelka didn't.

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