"Agenuine Russian fairy-story" is what Sergey Prokofiev announced he would create in composing a ballet version of "Cinderella." Now, 60 years later, he has the choreography to match, in a radical -- and profoundly Russian -- new production, given its U.S. premiere by the Bolshoi Ballet on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
This ballet, which delves into Prokofiev's inner life as much as it does that of the title figure, is ultimately more bitter than sweet, though there is plenty of laugh-out-loud humor. There is apt to be some head-scratching, too, among audience members expecting the conventional tutu-and-tiara treatment. You won't get that here.
After all, it's set on the moon. Or someplace that looks like it.
Bizarre, yes. But this "Cinderella" is a must-see ballet, because it demonstrates how tart, smart and relevant 21st-century ballet can be while retaining its formal beauty. It is a showcase -- if a strikingly unglamorous one -- for the dancers' dramatic talents, particularly those of the ravishingly passionate Svetlana Zakharova in the leading role on opening night. And it points to a promising future for choreographer Yuri Possokhov, a former Bolshoi dancer who just retired from a sterling career at the San Francisco Ballet.
While he's no novice at creating dances, his "Cinderella" is stamped all over with youthful daring. Unveiled in Moscow a year ago, it is a boldly conceived work of lacerating emotional force, propelled -- for all its strangeness -- by uncanny musicality. It takes a leap of faith to ride along with its peculiar mix of incongruities, but the reward is a voyage to the heart of a very human story, and a genuinely Russian one.
I know what you're thinking: The moon? It sounds like shock ballet, a nihilistic overhaul of a beloved fairy tale that's better off left as is. But consider the caldron in which Prokofiev wrote his glorious yet heavily shadowed music for "Cinderella." When he completed the score in 1944, the celebrated composer of "Romeo and Juliet," "Peter and the Wolf" and George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son" was living under Stalin's thumb. His marriage to a Spanish-born woman had been annulled -- forcibly, by many accounts -- and four years later she would be packed off to the Arctic gulag; they would never see each other again. Prokofiev was kept on a slightly looser leash, but even when he toured internationally, he was tethered to the Kremlin: His young sons remained behind in Moscow as collateral.
Not surprisingly, alongside Prokofiev's masterpieces there are also odes to Uncle Joe. Despite these, he was officially ostracized within a few years of "Cinderella's" premiere (fittingly, it was first performed by the Bolshoi), and not long after, he was dead -- on the same day as Stalin, no less, ensconcing him forever in the tyrant's shadow, where he remains branded as a compromised artist.
Does this sound like a man who wrote happy endings? Possokhov didn't think so. In the story of an enslaved stepchild, the choreographer sees a metaphor for the Russian experience.
The curtain opens on a starry sky, with a man sitting atop a small pockmarked planet. It looks like a scene out of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince," and the production retains that surreal quality throughout. The man is a Storyteller, a stand-in for the composer, wearing spectacles and a suit. It's soon clear that we're watching a play-within-a-play, where the Storyteller (given masterful nuance by Victor Barykin) encourages his broom-wielding companion into starring in the Cinderella story, literally pushing her through a huge stage door to take her place in the set.
What follows is what we all know of the fairy tale, though the Storyteller pops in at key moments for asides with his heroine -- he's the fairy godmother figure, producing the necessary ball invitation, and keeping her company once she's there, until the entrance of the Prince (the virtuoso star Sergey Filin, who also proves to be a sporting comic). The Storyteller hardly controls his own story, however -- the clocks ticks ominously for both of them, and as Barykin's melancholy overtones make clear, his character and Cinderella are tossed about by the same set of bewildering circumstances.
Sly theatrical effects abound, among them the mail carrier, bearing the royal invitations, who bikes through thin air. There's a brilliant vignette for the two bosomy stepsisters and their obliviously primping dancing teacher. There are nearly naked fairies wearing see-through teacups and saucers. The ballroom is dominated by an enormous marble staircase, whose banisters provide a slick entrance for the Prince. The ball scene piles on the comedy, but there's bite, too, in the guests' decadent, even vulgar dancing. (Hans Dieter Schaal designed the ingenious, deceptively simple sets.)
As a dancer, Possokhov was exceptionally fluid, and his choreography carries the same sense of flow. If his sequences are not especially clever -- he sticks to the standard classroom vocabulary -- they are clear, open and musically responsive. As the Prince travels the galaxy to find his lost love, he encounters a team of glam-girl horses; Possokhov heard a trot in the tuba and a giddyap in the strings, and by gosh, they're truly there. In other words, his unusual vision isn't forced; it derives from musical perception. He lets the music set the tone, and the dancing follows.
"Cinderella" has enchanted through the ages for its message of virtue rewarded at last. This was not to be Prokofiev's lot, however, and listening to the score, you know that he knows this. How he must have identified with his heroine, a virtuous, dutiful soul bound in service to a sadist. Like her, if ever the composer chanced upon an invitation to a ball -- or, say, a tour in the West -- he was always forced to rush home. But unlike her, there was no deliverance for the composer, and this point is poignantly made at the end of Possokhov's ballet. After the happy ending has happened and his characters have left him, the Storyteller, alone onstage, approaches the barren rock that is his planetary home. With an air of resignation, he vanishes into one of its craters. That image of broken greatness crawling into a hole lodges in the heart like a splinter.
Here's what is most profound about this ballet: With it the Bolshoi confronts the legacy of its homeland head-on and shows us that it can move forward on its own terms.
With its references to Stalin, is the Moscow company also jabbing a finger at President Vladimir Putin, as he faces growing criticisms over restricted freedoms? Intentional or not, the geopolitical context of this work makes its arrival in Washington even more momentous.