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Alberta Ballet - 'Cinderella'

by Kate Snedeker

February 17, 2012-- Jubilee Auditorium North, Edmonton, AB

One of the delights of going to the ballet is seeing the newest generation of ballet fans excitedly awaiting the opening curtain. At the 2012 Edmonton opening of Alberta Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’, the audience was replete with little girls dolled up in their best fairy tale princess dresses. It was a shame, therefore, that the onstage fairy tale didn’t have the same charm and energy.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly why Jean Grand-Maître’s production fails to achieve liftoff, but the company, which soared in last year’s ‘Fumbling Towards Ecstasy’ looked pedestrian in ‘Cinderella’. The problems seemed to lie in a mix of factors including choreography, lighting, costumes and overall concept. One factor that was clearly not a problem, though, was the dancers. With a plethora of new faces, including a trio of former National Ballet of Cuba dancers and a handful of young dancers from the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Onassis School, Grand-Maître has an impressive selection of talent. And the cast, led by company veterans Hayna Guiterrez and Kelley McKinlay danced well, but they just didn’t get much to work with.

This “Cinderella” was, refreshingly, an interpretation that didn’t require reading a book-length synopsis. We meet Cinderella on the day of her mother’s funeral as she struggles with her new family and new, lowly place in the household. Her only friend is a bird-like creature, but her stepmother and stepsisters head off to the prince’s ball, she meets her magical Fairy Godmother. And everyone knows the rest of the story...

Hayna Guiterrez brought emotional depth and precise technique to the title role. As with most of the dancers, she made the most of Grand-Maître’s limited choreographic repertoire, which included sections in soft slippers and pointe shoes. Guiterrez has a gorgeous, high demi pointe, so it was a treat to see her dance without the encumbrance of pointe shoes.

Turning convention on its head, Grand-Maître cast women as the stepsisters and a man as the stepmother. The idea has much potential, but was almost completely wasted because the stepmother role was played so straight. It was the Widow Simone without the playful costuming, cheekiness and the sly ‘yes I’m a guy playing a gal’ humor. Mark Wax, to his credit, made the most of what fun he could squeeze out of the role. Nicole Caron and Alison Dubsky were given much more latitude as the stepsisters, but instead of letting them rely their delightful mime and acting skills, Grand-Maître opted for irritatingly creeching laughs and pseudo-babble.

In another twist, Grand-Maître created two new solo male roles, the Bird Friend and the Jester. The Bird Friend served as a link between Cinderella and the magical world from which the Stepmother emerged, and the role served to highlight Anthony Pina’s control, extension and power. The role of Jester was almost certainly created for Yukichi Hattori, a tiny dynamo who learned his character skills under the tutelage of John Neumeier at the Hamburg Ballet. A tiny dynamo, Hattori blended spectacular technique with a deep understanding of character. His experience shone through in the first act when his pirouette sequences started to slip a touch out of control. Though Hattori never quite got quick back in balance, he was able to push through the technical bobbles without stumbling or breaking character. And then danced flawlessly through Act 2 and Act 3.

As the Fairy Godmother, Mariko Kondo showed off stunning, but controlled extension, and a generous flow. Company stalwart Kelley McKinlay was a fine prince for Gutierrez’s Cinderella, but their relationship was more platonic than passionate. However, lukewarm connection was clearly not of their making, but a result of the lackluster production.

The production had a plethora of problems that the dancing simply could not redeem. At just 1 hour 40 minutes, including three acts and an intermission, the ballet felt very rushed. There was little time to develop the characters, and both they and world that surrounded them – i.e. sets, lighting and costuming – lacked emotional and visual depth. Guillaume Lord’s simple sets cleverly used back lighting to capture action behind the scrim in delightful shadows. Yet, one often yearned for more color, and more things to fill the stage. The costumes, by Martine Bertrand, certainly added color, but as a whole they looked very amateurish. Not only did they have no cohesion in style or time-period, they were often simply unattractive or lacking in professional appearance.

The Bird Friend was encumbered with over-sized moth antennae sticking out of his back, the jester with a pirate’s hat and the Fairy Godmother with what looked like a high-neck Victorian nightgown. There was not a tutu in sight, with Cinderella’s ‘ball gown’ an unimpressive short, white dress with a smattering of sparkles. The Prince’s ball outfit was equally un-fairy tale with low-cut shirt more appropriate to ‘Carmen’ then ‘Cinderella’, and a poorly cut, flappingly loose tailcoat that did it’s best to make McKinlay’s elegant dancing look awkward. It was a relief when McKinlay was finally allowed to ditch the wretched garment. The male corps made off relatively unscathed, but both the fairies and the ball-ladies were clad in very simple, knee-length sheer dresses that had little elegance and fit no-one well.

Grand-Maître’s choreography was more than serviceable, but there simply wasn’t much of it. The most memorable sections were the solos for the Bird Friend and the Jester, which seemed custom tailored to allow the dancers to stretch their particular talents. However, the choreographic palette was very limited, so that the later solos appeared to be close repeats of the earlier ones. Hattori, in particular, was able to partially overcome the repetition by sheer power of character – we’re so enchanted by him that we don’t realize we’re seeing the same thing again and again.
Grand-Maître choreography was pleasant, but lacks the complexity that one finds in works by other classic and contemporary choreographers. He was at his best when moving large groups across the stage, delighting in dancers whisking or leaping across the stage in waves, and in creating circles of dancers weaving around the stage. In these large corps sections, the male corps was beautifully rehearsed with an attention to detail and synchronization that is all too rare these days. Of particular note was Cuban Jaciel Gomez who stood out for the refinement of his dancing. Unfortunately, the lighting was uniformly so dim that one had a hard time seeing even the best dancing.

In the all too brief penultimate pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, the choreography was pretty, but as with other Grand-Maître pas de deuxs, very static. The pas de deux was a series of pretty poses with little to connect them. This lack of flow or building emotion reduced the piece to a sequence of pretty pictures.

And then they lived happily ever after… But this fairy tale is one the leaves the audience not quite satisfied. One can’t fault the dancers – they are talented and desperately need a better vehicle for their talents. But the company needs to be creative in coming up with suitably professional classical productions. And, with all the oil money in this province, can some rich company please donate the funds for a live audience for the few productions that use classical music. The company deserves far better than the (at times poor quality) canned music?!!


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