Washington Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’ enchants with humor and splendid dancing


In the Washington Ballet’s “Cinderella,” Maki Onuki plays the titular character just right — not too weepy, not too mystical. (Brianne Bland)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic March 22, 2013

Why wait for fairies? The enchantments start early in the Washington Ballet’s “Cinderella.” Take the decor: With simple white furniture placed against a starlit night sky and slender birch trees stretching upward where there should be walls, our heroine’s home has a refreshing, surreal look. It’s Scandinavian chic with a little poetic ruggedness, and it throws the splendid dancing into bright relief.

Top-notch design elements, wicked humor from start to finish and many fine waltzes make this a stylish and entertaining production. Two hours zip by in a whirl of petticoats and moonlight, entwined with a strong thread of slapstick, thanks to the brilliantly quarrelsome stepsisters danced in drag by Luis R. Torres and Zachary Hackstock.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

This ballet, which opened Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater and continues through Sunday evening, is buckets of fun — a good thing, because, you know, there’s no suspense here. The characters are thin, the ever-after happiness is foretold. With his gift for humor, Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet artistic director who unveiled this version of the fairy tale a decade ago, has deftly focused on the lighter aspects of the story. There’s little mistreatment of the titular waif, no grotesqueness among the guests at the ball. Even the stepsisters are just stumble-footed buffoons rather than evildoers.

What gives the ballet its crisp, contemporary edge is the high-low aesthetic Webre devised — moments of sentimental elegance alongside rakish shtick. The aesthetic is enhanced by James Kronzer’s black-and-white scenery, the fun colors of Judanna Lynn’s costumes and Tony Tucci’s animated lighting.

Torres and Hackstock are a devastating pair, slamming into doorways and flinging themselves at the prince with the timing and reactions of ace vaudevillians. You imagine these doltish would-be-seductresses have plastered their bedrooms with posters of Carmen Miranda. If they can’t come close to her charm, at least they’ve copied her over-the-top lipstick and headgear.

On Thursday, they put the audience in a laughing mood from the start, and it never let up. By the time we got to the ball, all they had to do was step onstage and the house came down. When they started bumping into courtiers and swallowing up the poor jester in their skirts, there was hysteria in the seats.

Faced with this enthusiasm, the stars of the story have to be careful. You don’t want the tone bouncing all over the place. Maki Onuki’s Cinderella was just right: not too weepy, not too mystical, just a dear, sweet young woman with sparkling technique swept along on a lovely journey. Jared Nelson was supremely well suited to the role of her prince, quite believably awed by her thrilling series of turns at the ball, in which each perfect spin was like a pearl loosed from a chain. That finesse is no gift from a fairy godmother, but evidence of Onuki’s hard work and rare athleticism.

She is quite a special dancer, but what’s missing among her impressive mechanical strengths is softness and phrasing. There was an abruptness in her pas de deux with Nelson, a skimping on the small transition steps that are so critical to a complete picture of harmony.

Still, Onuki’s performance, like this ballet as a whole, had a fresh feel. The youthfulness of the cast had something to do with it: Like most of the full-length ballets that the chamber-size Washington Ballet performs, this production is filled out with the junior Studio Company and youngsters from the Washington School of Ballet.

The Prokofiev music is taped. But either I’m getting used to that — sigh — or someone has figured out how to make a recording work decently with the Eisenhower’s sound system, for the usual harshness was absent.

Cinderella

will be performed by the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, with cast changes, Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. About two hours.
Tickets $32-$125. 202-467-4600. www.washingtonballet.org or www.kennedy-center.org.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment