"Cinderella" at the matinee
Coming to the Saturday matinee of "Cinderella" still bathed in the glow from the exceptional first-night performance, one inevitably experienced a certain degree of letdown. The theater was far less well filled, and the audience was not dominated by the intensely devoted and knowledgeable balletomanes who were out in force on Friday evening. The glamour quotient of having Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep as the stepsisters was also absent, and the incredibly high standard set by the opening cast—particularly by the technical refinement, ease and grace with which Alina Cojocaru performed the title role—made disappointment almost inevitable.
But if the performance never rose to the same heights, it did offer a good opportunity to evaluate the beauty and mastery of Ashton's ballet as a whole. For someone like myself, whose most recent "Cinderella" experiences had been the incredibly wan and tedious Ben Stevenson production that ABT performs, the wonders that Ashton has wrought from the tale are numerous. There is the delightful balance he maintains between the comic ungainliness and often music hall-style capers of the stepsisters, who get an extensive chunk of stage time to themselves right at the start of act one, before the heroine has a chance to register—and the shimmering, pure world of Cinderella and her entourage of fairies and stars along with (later) the prince. Prokofiev helps Ashton, of course, providing sections of the score that have a dark, bitter flavor, often with an undertone of turbulence, as well as lyrical, richly harmonious contrasting sections.
One can find so many moments in the ballet when Ashton wrings his own ingenious variations on Petipa formulas—shaping his ensembles (especially the truly magical and gorgeous 12 women representing the stars) into crystalline, glistening patterns, geometrically precise yet radiating warmth and lyricism. His formal arrangements at the close of a section or an act are also ingenious and often bear echoes of moments from "Sleeping Beauty." The transformation that leads Cinderella away from her drudgery and towards her destiny—essentially act one, scene two—is such a glorious, beautifully shaded display of contrasting examples of purely classical dancing, perfectly placed within its music, that it could stand on its own as a desert-island ballet one would always be happy to see.
Part of the stepsisters' importance within the ballet is the way their earthy "low" shenanigans (competing, exhibiting their jealousy and anger) contrast with the purity and luminousness of the elevated stratum inhabited by Cinderella and her assembled fantastical minions. (The prince is an elegant, well-bred, pleasing fellow, but we aren't really shown enough about him to know whether he is truly worthy of Cinderella's nobility, goodness, charity and capacity to forgive.) Even in her early scenes as the household drudge (this production's gleaming blue-grey costume and stylish head scarf make her less of a drudge than most others), Cinderella exemplifies purity of heart and humanity's higher aspirations. We know this from the beautiful, incisive, eloquent footwork of her choreography. These two weeks of Ashton have reinforced how eloquently the feet can "speak" in Ashton's ballets, and how true Ashton dancers must have feet that are not only shapely and beautifully stretched but that carry out the expressiveness of the choreography and are always responsive to the musical impetus.
Leanne Benjamin, the matinee Cinderella, does have feet that draw the eye and fulfill Ashton's demanding requirements with grace and suppleness; this was evident from her tremulous, liquid performance in the "Thais" Pas de Deux on opening night. This aspect of her dancing enhanced her performance as Cinderella, and she has an innate wistfulness that conveyed the sorrow and sense of loss of Cinderella's situation in Act One. (If there was anything to complain about in Cojocaru's performance, it was that she seemed too chipper in those early scenes at home, and her tears as she sat and mourned her late mother seemed to come out of nowhere.) But Benjamin never relaxed fully into the character and her stiffness once she donned her shiny white tutu diminished the magic. Her face was a blank mask (in which one could read a "let me get through this" terror) as she carefully descended the staircase on her pointes when she entered the ball, and she never conveyed girlish delight at finding herself in the midst of such enchantment.
Viacheslav Samodurov also failed to take command as the prince, and his unease grew once they arrived at the culminating extended adagio. An awkward moment (something on his costume snagging on hers?) near the start left her tights torn and dislodged a piece of fluffy white material, which fell to the floor center stage. He was clearly keeping an eye on it and being extra careful not to place Benjamin in harm's way whenever he brought her down from a lift. The brief closing duet, which should be a summation and conclusion, leaving a sense that all has been set right, was also marred as Benjamin fell off pointe while holding an arabesque. These were meticulous, dutiful performances, and left one longing for interpretations that let these roles sing with their full volume and melodiousness.
Dowell's hilariously, brilliantly scaled performance of the bossier, more self-involved of the stepsisters (the Robert Helpmann role) was in now way equaled by Alastair Marriott, who was given a particularly hideous (almost to the point of ludicrousness) nose and pushed too hard for broad effects, particularly in the opening scene. In Marriott's hands, the character became unrelentingly pushy, obnoxious and ungainly, while Dowell gave her many shadings, including a misguided sense of glamour. The expert Dowell-Sleep pairing were so adorable in their antics and their fully shaped characterizations (and also had such a wonderful nostalgia aspect for longtime Royal watchers) that at first the matinee pair had to be viewed as a pale, if necessary, imitation. But gradually a wonderful sweetness and individual interpretation took shape in Jonathan Howells' performance of the more retiring, insecure sister (the one originally danced by Ashton himself). He made her a delightfully giddy would-be ballerina during the opening cavortings with the swaths of fabric; off in a corner, he was in his own reverie, evoking sylphs and other gossamer creatures—presumably, also a humorous tribute to Ashton's beloved Pavlova. Howells did not step over the line in his portrayal, allowing his character to be silly and comic but always giving her a heart. She was sweetly hopeful in her klutzy partnering with her suitor at the ball (hilarious done up as a dead ringer for Napoleon), and well aware, if willing to allow herself a bit of hopefulness, that the slipper the Prince brings to the house is not meant for her.