When Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of "Cinderella" for American Ballet Theatre had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House last December, it appeared to be a briskly engaging balletic entertainment -- not a great ballet by a long shot, but an eminently charming and diverting one, despite some serious flaws.
Upon its return to the same stage last night -- where it will run for a total of seven performances through Sunday night with five different casts of principals -- its virtues seemed as bright or brighter, and the flaws considerably toned down. Changes in the production, instituted in Washington last year and augmented in the course of the company's national tour, have either eliminated shortcomings or rendered them less conspicuous. And with the considerable help of last night's cast, led by Susan Jaffe as Cinderella and Patrick Bissell as the Prince, the ballet's merits -- the familiar story, the ingenious Prokofiev score, the production's melding of comedy, sentiment and fantasy -- summed up to a decidedly winning combination.
"Cinderella," on the whole, was none too kindly received by the dance press on its unveiling last season. My own first review, though expressing reservations, was predominantly favorable, and there were other laudatory notices elsewhere. Most, however, were negative, and some quite savage. But the production was a triumph at the box office in virtually every city it played, and last night's capacity crowd at Kennedy Center, which was warmly receptive if not gaga over the performance, proved once again the power of story ballet to pack a house no matter what the media have to say. There's an audience out there -- a large one, and quite apart from your usual run of balletomanes -- that wants its ballets with a legible plot, recognizable characters, hummable tunes and full theatrical dressing. "Cinderella" fills the bill.
Among the most noticeable of the changes from the version seen here last year was the scrapping of the Cobbler's Dance that so ineffectually introduced the last of the three acts. Many of the alterations are much subtler (Cinderella now drops her slipper, for instance, at center stage, rather than way in the rear), but in general the action has been vastly tightened and smoothed out -- at least 15 minutes have been trimmed from the original length. Some weak spots remain, and even the skillful tailoring -- by Baryshnikov and his co-choreographer, Peter Anastos -- hasn't turned this "Cinderella" into the rival of "Sleeping Beauty" or "Romeo and Juliet" that some commentators seemed to be demanding. Despite myriad attractions, the "Cinderella" score is simply not of that caliber, and the Baryshnikov-Anastos choreography, at its best, is clever, efficient and once in a while brilliant, rather than innovative or inspired, in dance terms.
The things that made this "Cinderella" an enjoyable evening in the theater the first time around are still the potent factors now, enhanced by the trimming and polishing the production has received -- the introduction of the frisky, endearing Cat as a partner for Cinderella; nice parodistic touches like the dance lesson for the travestied, on-point Step-Sisters; the comic choreographic business for the Prince's four friends, such as the double air turn one of them performs with his finger instead of his feet; the wholly invented scene of the Merchant and his three overeager daughters, rabid for the Prince's attention; the bravura dancing for the Prince, modeled on Baryshnikov's own electrifying pyrotechnics; and, best of all, the final, genuinely heartwarming Apotheosis, in which all the characters of the ballet are reconciled in friendship and love.
One of the things that most sorely upset the ballet's detractors was the original conception of Cinderella as something of a headstrong, self-possessed rebel. In truth, in last year's version the heroine seemed so independent and hardy, so unintimidated by her cruel kin, that the fairy-tale romance seemed deprived of its motivating elements. Whether through the staging or the portrayals or more likely both, this was largely remedied last night. Jaffe -- a Washington-born, Washington-trained ballerina who replaced the injured Magali Messac (the first Cinderella last year) for this opening performance -- was a far more vulnerable, put-upon, and finally, lovelorn Cinderella than those we recall from the original run. Her dancing had plenty of spark where it was needed -- as in her Ball Scene solo -- but also that note of tenderness and reverie too often underplayed the first time around.
Patrick Bissell, who originated the role of the Prince, was as physically prepossessing as ever, and as much of a dashing swinger as the production needs him to be, but he was also more careful and restrained, both in acting and dancing, than on his first night out last year -- the result was a cleaner, but somewhat less explosive performance. Splendidly effective in supporting roles were David Cuevas and Thomas Titone as the Step-Sisters; Michael Langlois as the Cat; Amanda McKerrow as the Fairy Godmother; Ross Stretton as the Dancing Master; Amy Rose as one of the merchant's daughters; Chrisa Keramidas as the Masked Lady; and John Gardner, Ethan Brown, Robert Hill and William Stolar as the Prince's friends. The one dancer who was not up to his accustomed standard was Peter Fonseca in the Autumn Dance -- he's been having a troubled season thus far. Paul Connelly led the Opera House Orchestra in a spirited, effusive and meticulous reading of the Prokofiev music.