• Photo copyright: Yonathan Kellerman/OnP. Nureyev's Cinderella performed by the Paris Opera Ballet.


Paris Opera Ballet

Opéra Bastille
December 5, 2018
Runs through January 2, 2019.

The theme of legacy has dominated the programming this fall at the Paris Opera Ballet, a season that opened with the Martha Graham Company in September and recently celebrated the centenary of Jerome Robbins. Of course, when an institution can trace its history by the century, it’s not surprising that questions of legacy are a regular preoccupation. Perhaps less well known to audiences outside France is the central position occupied by Rudolf Nureyev in the company’s recent history. Although short-lived, his tenure as the POB’s dance director between 1983 and 1989 left a lasting mark on the company’s repertoire, notably through his restagings of classics, such as Don Quixote and La Bayadère, which are still actively performed (Nureyev’s Swan Lake is scheduled for early 2019).

Cinderella, however, is unique among Nureyev’s contributions to the company in that it transposes the setting of the classic Perrault fairytale to Hollywood’s golden era of filmmaking in the 1930s. Cinephiles will no doubt enjoy the numerous references to classic films that range from Chaplin’s iconic moves to a Metropolis-inspired backdrop, lest we forget the oversized King Kong puppet. Beyond the novelty of this pastiche set to Prokofiev’s score, however, movie making provides fertile ground for central themes found in the original narrative. As a time-based art form, film proves to be the perfect vehicle for exploring the border between reality and dreams, and alternate temporalities.

In Nureyev’s Cinderella, time takes on the physical form of a clock danced by twelve individuals, each numbered by the hour. Although the producer takes the place of a fairy godmother, whisking Cinderella away to stardom in a pumpkin-colored Cadillac, there is no warning that the spell will be broken at midnight. In fact, there is no spell, beyond the psychological one cast by Hollywood’s glamor. Instead, the tale takes on a psychological twist, with Cinderella’s own anxiety provoking a crisis of self-doubt. Wondering how long her new-found happiness will last, she flees professional success on-set and romance with her co-star, leaving one of her famed slippers behind. She returns home to endure the torment of her abusive family. Happy ending obliged, the movie star (Prince Charming) seeks the wearer of the glass slipper. As the story goes, when he arrives at Cinderella’s home, the two stepsisters each take a turn at fitting the shoe. But in a break from tradition, it is Cinderella who takes the initiative to fetch the slipper’s mate from her hiding spot by the hearth. Reunited with her Hollywood co-star, she signs a movie contract. The lights dim and the effects of a fan blow Cinderella’s gown and scarf in a romantic illusion, while the producer looks on and a cameraman signals, “Cut!” with a clapperboard marked Cinderella.

Have we witnessed Cinderella’s escape fantasy? Or a true “rags to riches” story à la American Dream? Time is ambiguous in this version of Cinderella: there is no definitive break between an ostensible daydream sequence at Cinderella’s home during which the title character dons a Chaplin suit and the point at which she is whisked away into the world of Hollywood, leaving the viewer to question the nature of reality, as many a meteoric rise to fame has done. Beyond its psychological depth (wearing shoes has been represented throughout history, not only as a symbol of emancipation, but of accepting responsibility for one’s acts), thinly veiled beneath a playful set and character acting, the choreography finds itself at a crossroads between the stunning lyricism that Nureyev excelled at and unexpected moments of disequilibrium. The latter is not the wide angular daring of Balanchine, but just a hint of surprise to maintain suspense, a turn that veers off balance, but never loses its curved fluidity, thanks to an accomplished performance by Dorothée Gilbert in the title role. Accompanied by her partner Hugo Marchand as the movie star (or Prince Charming), and stepsisters played by Valentine Colasante and Emilie Cozette, Cinderella offers the unique opportunity to witness multiple étoiles on stage simultaneously. This is particularly admirable in the case of the stepsisters, whose jerky and grotesque movements require the dancers to deform their technique considerably for comedic effect. During the December 5th performance, Colasante and Cozette’s playful performances elicited many a laugh, as did the role of the stepmother, performed in drag (and en pointe) by Aurélien Houette.

Audiences often come for the decadent movie sets (that take full advantage of the larger dimensions found in the contemporary Bastille Opera House) and lush costumes designed by Hanae Mori, but may leave the theatre considering how dance and film allow us to reflect on time, social realities, and of course, the stuff that dreams are made of…

Marisa C. Hayes is a Franco-American scholar and artist. She writes about the visual and performing arts for a variety of print and electronic publications. In 2017, Auteur published her first monograph, an analysis of the movement in Takeshi Shimizu’s film Ju-on. She is editor in chief of the French dance research journal Repères, cahier de danse and co-directs the International Video Dance Festival of Burgundy.