You know the drill. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl loses slipper, boy finds girl and she gets, not only a husband, but a complete pair of shoes.
Everybody’s favorite fairy tale came to graceful and exuberant life this week on the Zellerbach stage, courtesy of Cal Performances, who imported Russia’s famed Mariinsky Ballet to Berkeley, along with Valery Gergiev’s equally renowned orchestra (here conducted by Gavriel Heine). Uber-choreographer Alexei Ratmansky put a 1930s spin on Perrault’s 1697 timeless classic for his 2002 work, the one that jump-started his meteoric rise in the dance firmament (he is now artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre in New York), while retaining the major outlines of the story.
Except the fairy godmother (Elena Bazhenova), instead of a Disneyesque lovable old grandmother, is a kind of crabby bag lady. And there is a terrific quartet of the four seasons who bobs in and out of the action like a magical chorus, nudging the action along when it is not bringing it to a halt with some show-stopping high stepping ((Alexey Popov, Vasily Tkachenko, Konstantin Ivkin and Andrey Soloviev on opening night). Added too are a pair of saucy, snobbish dance teachers (Yuri Smekalov and Viktoria Brileva) who come to teach the klutzy stepsisters some moves on the eve of the ball.
Those klutzes (Margarita Frolova and Yekaterina Ivannikova) are pretty funny, only outdone by their mother (Anastasia Petushkova) who is an absolute narcissistic riot. She even tries on the glass slipper herself in Act III, and to heck with those marriageable daughters. The prince (Konstantin Zverov) is indeed tall, dark and handsome and can execute a mean pirouette, not to mention his entrechats.
All of which leads to the title character, portrayed by the incomparable Diana Vishneva on opening night only. Prima ballerina of both the Mariinsky and American Ballet Theatre, the diminutive diva is something to behold. Although she spends most of Act I cleaning and cowering under the yoke of her demanding stepmother and stepsisters, once they take off for the party she can really cut loose, lyrically dreaming of what it would be like to be in their place.
The Prince’s Ball is the glittering centerpiece of any production of “Cinderella” and this one doesn’t disappoint. The court ladies, elegantly dressed in post-flapper era draped gowns of purple, red, fuchsia and orange, dance with their Gatsby-like tuxedoed courtiers (kudos to the fine Mariinsky corps) as the stepmother and sisters lumber their ungainly way through the steps. There even is a conga line at one point. This is all against a Piranesi-like backdrop of columns and arches that seem to stretch out limitlessly, dominated by a gigantic clock which will swing around near midnight to underscore the urgency of Cinderella’s flight. But, before that, the backdrop projection will change to giant pines, suggesting the garden where the lonely cleaning woman and the handsome prince fall in love. The set is by Ilya Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov with costumes by Elena Markovskaya.
Ratmansky’s choreography is quirky for the stepfamily and the sprites, occasionally for the corps — especially when they are gossiping about the prince and his mysterious new lady — and I don’t think I’ve ever been as conscious of elbows in a ballet before. But it turns rather conventional, though lovely, in the pas de deux of Cinderella and her prince. And there are several, giving us a chance to appreciate Vishneva’s lyrical line, quicksilver steps and general grace. By Act III Zverov also gets to show his stuff as he literally races against that enormous clock to find the owner of the slipper.
Finally one had the pleasure of hearing Prokofiev’s wonderful score played by an orchestra worthy of it. Too often the great dance companies brought to Berkeley by Cal Performances must perform to recorded music. This orchestra, nearly as famed as the dance troupe it accompanies, did it proud under the baton of Heine. A good note on which to end.