The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
November 12, 2016
by Denise Sum
Copyright © by Denise Sum 2016
On Nov. 12, 1951 the newly formed National Ballet of Canada gave its first performance at the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto, led by founder Celia Franca. The program featured "Les Sylphides" and "Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor". Exactly 65 years later, the company marked its anniversary with a spirited performance of James Kudelka's 12 year old production of "Cinderella". The NBoC has had two other productions of the popular fairy tale in its repertoire, from Celia Franca and then Ben Stevenson. It is Kudelka's version, however, that seems to have taken hold in Toronto, with its stylish jazz age setting, witty sense of humor, and contemporary take on the familiar narrative. The opening night cast featured Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté who created the roles of Cinderella and Prince Charming at the premiere in 2004.
Photo: Artists of the Ballet in "Cinderella". Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Kudelka's "Cinderella" is a boon at the box office and it is easy to see why. The recognizable story and dazzling designs by David Boechler appeal to audience members young and old. In keeping with Prokofiev's layered and sometimes erratic score, there are moments of romance and tenderness, but the feel is never cloying or saccharine. In this version, Cinderella is sweetly optimistic, but not naive. She sees her dire circumstances and behaves in a way to minimize trauma to herself and try to make the best of the situation. Despite taunting, abusive stepsisters and a perpetually drunken stepmother, she is able to escape through fantasy and a steadfast maintenance of her ideals.
The ballet opens with Cinderella daydreaming of her future nuptials. She later waltzes across the kitchen with her broom as a stand-in for her dance partner. She takes moments of simple pleasure where she can -- trying on a ballgown when her stepsisters are not looking or playing hopscotch on the kitchen tiles. Unlike her status hungry stepsisters, she strives not for glamour or prestige, but for the freedom to retreat to a quiet and peaceful domestic life and a comfortable, honest love. Meanwhile, her Prince Charming is disenchanted and feeling trapped by the confines of his rank. At his ball, his dancing is dutiful but disinterested. He only become momentarily amused when he substitutes a friend in his chair and the near-sighted stepsister, not noticing, tries to seduce the friend. The Prince and Cinderella's affections build gradually yet intensely from their first encounter at the ball, where time seems to stand still. In Act 3, although they are apart, their love is evident. Cinderella, newly in love, dances a rapturous variation wearing her remaining glass slipper (or in this case, jewel-encrusted pointe shoe). Meanwhile, the Prince is driven to criss-cross the globe in search of her. When they are finally united, they come together as equals with much to offer each other. They manage to free each other of the inauthentic and materialistic worlds that they both felt stuck in, and in doing so, find their own voice and agency.
Visually, Boechler's art deco inspired designs are striking and memorable. This is one of the strengths of this production. The look is stylish and distinctive, while maintaining that element of the fantastic. Cinderella's grand entrance to the ball, for instance, features a huge floating pumpkin adorned with ribbons which the fairies gently pull to help it land softly. The ballroom scene features hanging lanterns and the most fashionably dressed corps de ballet in dropped waist flapper dresses with exquisite beading, fringe, and headwear. In Act 3's around the world sequence, there is a beach scene with a woman in a maillot holding a large beach ball that is straight out of a Horst P. Horst photo from a vintage Vogue cover. Finally, in a nod to the company's home, we see a woman wearing snow shoes and a Hudson's Bay blanket -- an iconic piece of Canadiana design. Key moments such as Cinderella's transformation before and after the ball are difficult to show to great effect in this medium, however. The footwear changes (from barefoot to wearing pointe shoes) are especially tricky to show on stage, as Cinderella has to secure her toe padding and ribbons while others awkwardly huddle around her feet to cover her. Nothing would break the magical atmosphere like seeing Cinderella contend with lambswool and paper towel in her shoes!
Choreographically, Kudelka stays within a fairly familiar and classical vocabulary, with some more naturalistic or contemporary gestures sprinkled in. The choreography for Cinderella is extensive, as she is on stage for the majority of the ballet. The kitchen scenes require great stamina, as her variations feature a lot of petit allegro and changing directions to match staccato, whimsical elements in the music. The ageless Rodriguez showed no signs of fatigue, dancing with a youthful and effortless exuberance from start to finish. Her Cinderella's personality came across clearly as good-natured, strong-willed and generous. Côté's Prince Charming is slightly more disenchanted with the world, but any cynicism he has lifts after their first pas de deux. Côté is a born Prince and has danced this role countless times with the NBoC, as well as ABT. The role fits him like a glove and he is able to relax into the choreography. For instance, he executed a series of difficult turns with a wide grin on his face the entire time. The partnership between Rodriguez and Côté is a natural one. They both convey similar warmth and ease in everything they do.
In the comedic supporting roles of the stepmother and two stepsisters, Lise-Marie Jourdain, Tanya Howard, and Rebekah Rimsay were a triptych of near over-the-top malice and boorishness. Jourdain made her debut as the stepmother, and her expressions and timing were priceless. A dancer that many remember for her serene Lilac Fairy in "The Sleeping Beauty", she was nearly unrecognizable here. She added her own farcical details to every scene. During her daughters' dance lesson, she was on the sidelines gleefully jiggling her martini shaker while boldly making advances on the dance teacher. In a kitchen scene, she crawls over furniture to get a few gulps from her hidden stash of booze and instead of simply walking off stage, she does a hilarious tipsy charleston step. Howard was the perfect drama queen as the narcissistic and bossy stepsister. Rimsay played the klutzy, bespectacled stepsister who is content to follow. She truly mastered a nearsighted blank stare and drunken hiccups. At the ball, they made a ridiculously gauche duo. Cinderella aside, neither of them had a chance with the Prince.
Entering its 65th season, it makes sense that the NBoC chose to open with a crowd-pleaser. The company looked cohesive and strong in Kudelka's "Cinderella". Here's hoping that as the company continues to grow, safe audience favorites such as "Cinderella" can support staging more risk-taking ballets as well.
Photo: Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in "Cinderella". Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.