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The Kirov's 'Cinderella' Rises Out of the Ashes

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page C01

There's something quite strange about the Kirov Ballet's "Cinderella," which opened Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and it's neither the enchanted scullery maid's deconstructed SoHo setting nor the homoeroticism that is woven into the prince's search for her. What is most unusual about this production is the ruthlessness with which choreographer Alexei Ratmansky adheres to his theme that dancing is a mirror of the soul. To do this, he has bestowed all the best steps upon the title figure and her prince, while the rest of the cast is a caricature of awkwardness and vulgarity.

If nothing else, you've got to admire the chutzpah. If the storied Kirov Ballet -- the Tiffany of ballet companies -- isn't about great dancing, who is? Yet for the first half of this three-hour ballet, Ratmansky relies heavily on slapstick and sight gags. He twists the stepmother and her daughters into unladylike contortions. There is not a classical step to be seen among the self-important ball guests, with their droopy elbows and clawed hands. Even Cinderella's lonely pre-ball solo is strained and ragged, as if she's struggling against an invisible tether. Then she meets the prince, love blooms and suddenly we're watching a ballet.

Victoria Tereshkina and Elena Sheshina, wrapped in towels for the roles, play the wicked stepsisters in choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's "Cinderella." (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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'Cinderella': Performance Info
Kennedy Center Info
January Theater Openings
Arts & Living: Theater & Dance

The idea that dance reveals character is not new, but Ratmansky takes it to intriguing extremes here, and the ballet is worth seeing just to marvel at the risks he takes. He panders to no one's vanity: Of all the ballerinas onstage, only one gets to look lovely, and this couldn't have gone over easily with the soloists and corps de ballet.

The men, likewise, yield all bravura to the prince. As a result, there is a poetic statement at the heart of this otherwise drastic production: Romantic love is the most ennobling of human capacities, the emotion that puts everything aright. This ballet is worlds apart from the traditional, painterly, period approach to story ballets, but it shares that spirit.

Ratmansky's concept does not wholly succeed, however. The humor is tiresome at times, and the steps for some characters, particularly the fairy godmother (here dubbed the Fairy Tramp) are jarringly silly. The Prokofiev score (brightly conducted by Mikhail Agrest) gets mixed treatment, though in general the choreography's aggressively modern edge serves to refresh the music, emphasizing its angularity in interesting ways.

But I left the theater wishing to see more of Ratmansky's work. For all its hot colors and clubby fashions, his "Cinderella" is not gratuitously nihilist in the way that some efforts to update the classics are. Modernizing traditional ballets has become something of a Russian trend. The Bolshoi, under Ratmansky's leadership for the past year, has been touring a new production of "Romeo and Juliet" featuring a screaming heroine in pants. The Kirov brought a dark, radically coarsened version of "The Nutcracker" here last year. But this "Cinderella" succeeds where "Nutcracker" failed, because Ratmansky's approach is consistent, and there is thought behind it.

The curtain opens on a spare, dark stage, flanked by fire escapes and dominated by a blood-red backdrop made to look like corrugated metal -- the East Village by way of Studio 54. The aesthetic continues in the costuming. When we first meet them, the stepmother (Irma Nioradze) is wearing a kimono -- she's still a commanding presence -- and her daughters are wrapped in towels; later they go to the ball in snappy little black numbers held up with stretch lace. The four male fairies who visit Cinderella along with the motherly Fairy-Tramp look like refugees from Mardi Gras, wearing little more than bright tights and loud headgear, with faces painted to match.

Oddly, the streamlined, crayon-colored concept actually works. The misfires are the blindingly white Good Humor Man suit for the Prince and the lumpy overcoat and boots for the Fairy-Tramp. Evidently she's from some thumpier, frumpier fairy order than her Day-Glo brethren.

The ink drawing of a receding pillared hallway that dominates the ballroom decor is a nice minimalistic touch. No tiered taffeta here; the ladies are in sleek clingy gowns, the men in tuxedos.

Ratmansky ran short of ideas for the ensemble, but he seems to have poured his heart into the long, luscious duet for Cinderella (the willowy Natalia Sologub, an unusually expressive dancer) and the Prince (Andrei Merkuriev, boyish and appealing despite that awful suit). This is no bolt-of-lighting, love-at-first-sight encounter. With inventiveness and economy, Ratmansky allows us to see the two falling in love through their dancing, which has moments of fast, fleet footwork (perhaps influenced by his years at the Royal Danish Ballet, where that is a hallmark) and a sense of flight and freedom.

Back in her bleak flat, Cinderella is retracing the steps from their duet, and this scene is the ballet's most powerful. At first, she is as clunky as she was before meeting the Prince, but through a force of will that she makes shiningly clear manages to recapture the beauty of her dancing at the ball, and with a glowing arabesque and those long, lovely arms, she again conjures the freedom and joy of that moment.

This uplifting feeling lasts for only a few bars of music, however, before she realizes her imagination can't take her away from her ugly surroundings. There's no mistaking the violence of this realization; Sologub proves to be a convincing actress with a profound display of physically painful despair. This is a truly shattering performance, and when, after a moment, she sucks it up and returns to housework, you feel you know something about the inner strength that has enabled her to survive her famously dysfunctional family.

When Cinderella and the Prince meet again -- after he has searched for her among an affectionate group of bare-bellied Amazons and their male counterparts -- it's not instant glee. There's a measure of fear mixed in with their reunion -- part of happily ever after is leaving everything behind. It's another element of Ratmansky's contemporary reading of the fairy tale: Happy endings don't come easy.

Performances continue through Sunday, with cast changes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company