Gilded Magic in PNB’s Cendrillon
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney.” So begins Artistic Director Peter Boal’s “Director’s Notebook” for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Cendrillon. Disney is not what this production team was aiming for. This Cinderella is dark and twisty, delving deeper into the characters and their relationships.
There’s a cruel yet gilded magic laid over this ballet, and a dreamlike quality whenever the color gold appears. Gold seems to promise happiness, but is also a disguise, a tricking ornament. The Fairy’s beckoning arm, disembodied and shining from behind the moving set pieces, reminds us that we know the ending to this story—or at least, we know most of it.
In the Prologue, the Mother and Father are conjured by Cinderella’s memory. Their attraction is electric, youthful, light. Playful partnering between principal Seth Orza and guest artist April Ball conveys spontaneity and ease, their love a force powerful enough to make the Mother forget the pangs in her heart that eventually kill her.
Cinderella, played by principal Noelani Pantastico, feels this loss keenly. In her elegiac contortions of grief, she seems the inevitable progeny of her parents’ brief marriage, still young and buffeted by mourning and the intense personalities of her new family. A duet between Cinderella and the Father stirs up a circular sense of play, a tender relationship maintained amidst their sadness. The Sisters, played by principal Rachel Foster and soloist Sarah Ricard Orza, disrupt their quiet moments of joy. They appear first in their undergarments, heads wrapped in gauze, mouths yawning open grotesquely, the picture of cosmetic alteration and materialism. The audience expects the Sisters to be preening show-offs, but there’s a painful element underneath their determined allure—as when, in Act III, the prince unveils their feet to find them bloody and raw under their bandages.
It’s easy to feel for the sisters when considering the Stepmother, played by principal Lesley Rausch, whose need to be on top causes her to literally pull her daughters down while they choose dresses for the ball. Rausch’s technical mastery shines through, and she draws the spotlight even in hectic scenes, as when completing slow, perfectly balanced attitude turns as the rest of the cast swirls around her at twice the speed. She is also exquisitely matched with Orza as the Father, their pas de deux striking and accomplished.
In fact, the reliance on plot in this ballet, intricate and compelling as it is, means that the dancing seems a secondary concern. With a cast of this caliber, it would have been worth highlighting the technical virtuosity and athletic skill that nevertheless remains evident even if the fast action prevents time for solos. The group choreography during the ball is intricate and well synchronized, showcasing great extension in the battements. Lacking a traditional grand pas de deux of the lead couple, the duet between Cinderella and her Prince, when it comes, conveys intense feeling. These young people, so used to being scrutinized, are suddenly unsupervised, and they come together impulsively, with a heady wonder of togetherness that works well without the formal structure of solo variations. A pas de quatre with Cinderella and the Prince along with the Fairy/Mother and the Father compares their relationships, the ingénues juxtaposed and encouraged by the sureness and maturity of the parents. The implied similarity doesn’t end there: Cinderella and the Prince end the show by repeating the exact arm movement initiated by the Father and Mother in the prologue.
These two relationships are not the only mirrors of each other. There’s a strong theme of twinning—the Sisters each wear one half of the same dress to the ball, and the eight female ball attendees each wear one of four dresses. The Pleasure Superintendents, played by corps de ballet members Steven Loch and Miles Pertl, are like a pair of blue penguins, comical in their purpose: ridiculous one moment, serious in intent the next, sinister potential behind their eager smiles.
The Prince, played by principal James Moore, does not at first appear to have a double. Surrounded by silver-clad friends bouncing abruptly between bawdy hip thrusting and slumping stupor, he seems less than desirable. These young men may be drunk, or simply bored with their posturing, losing steam periodically like marionettes being cut from their strings.
It is only when the Prince disrobes at the ball, removing his golden coat to uncover a pure white costume, that he seems genuinely excited, wrapped up in youthful spirit rather than a put-on raunchy sexuality. Though the production is full of colorful spectacle, Cinderella doesn’t need excessive ornament either. Her feet may be washed with gold, but she wears in a simple white frock that recalls her mother’s dress from the Prologue. The color white doesn’t symbolize purity exactly—neither character is a childish innocent—but it does seem to symbolize clarity of self as their courtship begins. Yes, they end the show gilded in finery, dressed head to toe in gold, but they stand apart from familial expectation and the crowded influence that permeates the rest of the show. This time gold doesn’t seem a trick but instead a metaphor for how glowing the relationship feels, elevated as they are above the plane of the everyday.
Where some fairytales problematically imply an abandoning of self, a false striving, a search for wealth, Cendrillon seems to advocate for authenticity. Rather than requiring a scullery maid to dress up as a princess, the prince seems a normal person disguised as a pompous royal who must dress down. Scrubbing dirt from Cinderella and inheritance from the prince makes them both shine. In this fraught political climate, this daring, beautiful, and complex production is both a fairytale escape and a reminder to peel back the surface to find real feeling beneath artifice.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Cendrillon, choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, music by Sergei Prokofiev, opened Friday, February 3, 2017 at McCaw Hall. The show runs through February 12, 2017. Tickets are available at pnb.org.