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The Royal Ballet


by Jerry Hochman

July 16, 2004 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

I feel cheated.

Not because of anything wrong with The Royal Ballet’s performance of Ashton’s "Cinderella" on July 16 at the Met, and certainly not because of anything wrong with Alina Cojocaru, who danced the lead. On the contrary, in every respect it was a memorable performance of a memorable ballet.

I feel cheated because, to my knowledge, Cojocaru has danced at the Met only four times: once last year guesting with ABT in La Bayadere, and in three performances with the Royal during this summer’s Ashton Celebration as part of the Lincoln Center Festival – once in the "Voices of Spring" pas de deux (which, unfortunately, I missed), once in "Scenes de Ballet," and once in "Cinderella." I want more.

There are certainly other great ballerinas, both those who are no longer dancing, and those dancing today. Dancers with impeccable technique, exciting and magnetic stage presence, acting on par with their dancing, physical attractiveness, or great rapport with the audience. We all can recite their names; we go to their performances to see them dance, not just to see the ballets in which they are dancing. Very few, however, can put it all together, and fewer still can seem to take the whole package to another level. Cojocaru is one of those rare dancers who does everything well, but more. She has strength combined with gentleness, speed, the cleanest of possible lines, an extension that is perfectly sculpted but never overstated,.... I could go on. She's an ethereal diamond. But what makes Cojocaru different is that the entire package is wrapped in a fresh and natural grace that makes you at once wonder how anyone so talented can appear to be so nice. Forgive my comparisons; I know they are invalid, unwise, and ultimately unfair. But when I see Cojocaru, I see the thoroughbred aura, speed, tenacity, and electricity of a Gelsey Kirkland, combined with the rock-solid strength of a Svetlana Zakharova and the spriteliness and genuine warmth of a Lis Jeppesen. And I mean all that as the highest of praise.

Ashton’s "Cinderella," while not, as I recall, as interesting choreographically as other versions I’ve seen, is a wonder of stagecraft and invention that, put in its historical context, must have been a glorious tonic for post-war Britain. It is at once emotionally rewarding and constantly hilarious; a warm-hearted fairy tale/folk tale/comedy routine. Cojocaru was Cinderella in every conceivable way. She danced the part (in hindsight most of what I can recall is a spinning top with an arabesque to die for, but her technical prowess seemed never less than perfect), but she also looked the part. She was sweet and vulnerable and could take your breath away, all seemingly at the same time. Maybe Audrey Hepburn if Audrey Hepburn had been a ballerina. But although the story is “about” Cinderella, the ballet is as much a celebration of the best of ballet slapstick in the persons of the two stepsisters as it is about Cinderella. Indeed, the ballet might just as easily have been titled ‘The Stepsisters.” Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep as the two stepsisters were absolutely fabulous; their performances, to my eye, were complete portrayals of characters that could have been simply comic cardboard. The fact that Anthony Dowell, one of the best of danseur nobles, and Wayne Sleep, one of the best of character dancers, pulled it off with such exquisite hilarity is a tribute not just to Ashton’s vision but to the enduring value of both of them to ballet theater. Johan Kobborg, though not as exciting to watch as Cojocaru, danced well enough on his own, and was a skillful and attentive partner. The fairy godmother and lead fairies all handled Ashton’s difficult choreography, with Lauren Cuthbertson, as the summer fairy, executing particularly well. And the lesser fairies in blue [if Juliet can have “friends”, and Swanilda can have “friends”, these were Cinderella’s “friends”] seemed an unusually promising group of attractive and able dancers – I noticed one or two in particular, but can’t identify them because none were listed in the program. The puckish jester, danced ably and energetically by Jose Martin, nearly stole the ballet. And the production itself, credited to Wendy Ellis Somes, is enchanting. Toer van Schayk’s sets are marvelous, and Mark Jonathan’s lighting brings it all to life.

This performance was the first truly sold-out house I’ve seen at the Met in a long time. Moreover, unlike performances by “foreign” companies where the audience is populated to a significant degree by tourists, this was a house filled with people knowledgeable about ballet who knew what – or, more accurately, who they came to see. And when the performance ended, the house – the entire house – spontaneously stood, cheered, and refused to let them go.

Which, again, is why I feel cheated. Ultimately, Cojocaru’s performance was a tease (as was the Royal’s appearance, and as were the appearances of the Birmingham Royal, the Joffrey, and the K Ballet Company before them – there was little opportunity to see these companies’ dancers, let alone a representative sample of their repertoires). Couldn’t The Royal have stayed another week, to take it out of the Ashton umbrella, so we could see Cojocaru dance Giselle in New York, as she did earlier this summer in California, or Juliet, or Aurora, or Kitri, or "La Sylphide," or "The Dream" (why wasn’t that included in the Ashton Celebration?), or anything at all? I guess if we were able to see her dance more frequently, Cojocaru might be less appreciated. But I’d take that risk. Can she be cloned?

Edited by Holly Messitt

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