WASHINGTON, D.C. – “The Russian ballerinas accomplish the feat of being fluent on their toes. They take a collection of steps, as a singer takes a collection of notes, and calmly and gracefully phrase them,” writes Ellen Terry in her classic 1913 study The Russian Ballet.
This season features ballet at the Kennedy Center which challenges this traditional understanding of the art form!
This month, for example, I had the pleasure of attending New Adventures Company’s production of Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella,” which appeared from Jan. 15 to 20 at the Kennedy Center.
The show used Sergei Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” score. Prokofiev’s music was unusual, even revolutionary, during the first half of the 20th century, his highly accessible “Peter and the Wolf” notwithstanding. Yet, while his music is innovative, his portrayal of the Cinderella story is usually portrayed along more or less along traditional lines.
Such was not the case for the Kennedy Center production, which set Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” in London in 1940, during the Nazi Blitzkrieg air raids against Britain. The fairy godmother now is male, at times helping Cinderella find her Prince, while at other acting like a sinister Angel of War. Cinderella’s ball takes place at the Café de Paris; as the ball is ending, the clock counts down five minutes to midnight – an enormous clock building the excitement of the moment as it ticks down to Prokofiev’s melodic “Cinderella Waltz” when Cinderella will disappear – and when the German attack will come.
It is five minutes to midnight not only in the Cinderella narrative but before the fall of France to the Axis powers. While ballet is traditionally executed without words, here there are two World War II-style newsreel films informing the audience of the war situation and what to do in case of an air raid.
Ashley Shaw was a stunning Cinderella, both in her repressed stage marginalized in a hostile home environment and then in her glamorous ballroom gown in the heart of French society.
Andrew Monaghan as Harry the Pilot – the prince figure – alternated in dance movements between optimistic and haggard and hardened by war. Above it all, swooping down was Liam Mower as the ambiguous Angel, dressed in white and with a main of white hair, hovering ever near war. While there were fluent, calm and graceful movements and gestures reminiscent of the traditional ballet, many other steps were used, much more from the jazz dance idiom. At the end of the production, during a recreation of VE-Day, the cast danced more in the swing mode to Glenn Miller’s popular 1940 hit “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”
The costumes were beautiful replicas of 1940s fashions, but in near monochrome, to reflect the black-and-white newsreels and/or the bleakness of war.
Other settings included a Red Cross hospital, though here – as in war – not all was clear. Was Cinderella looking for her Prince (who was now a soldier)? Or was the image of Cinderella all a fantasy in the shell-shocked soldier’s mind? The “Cinderella in World War II” concept is clever, but perhaps not always completely associable to the audience, or at least to this reviewer.
More positively, the production invites comparison with Marvel’s recent “Wonder Woman” movie, which also reinterprets Greek myth, war, and Wonder Woman herself in unexpected and innovative ways.
While Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella” production has now sadly ended, other non-traditional ballet fare is coming soon. The National Ballet of China will be presenting “Raise the Red Lantern” from Feb. 13 -16, a show based on the 1990s Mainland Chinese film of the third wife of a feudal Lord in China before the establishment of the People’s Republic. This production will feature non-Western ballet as well as look into China’s artistic and historical past.
Finally, Lord Byron was once one of the most widely read of the British Romantic poets, especially so in continental Europe. His narrative poem “The Corsair” was translated into a work of ballet – “Le Corsaire” – by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Adolphe Adam. A rare chance to experience this more obscure ballet of a tale of a Byronic hero will be afforded by the renowned Mariinsky Ballet from April 9 -14, rounding out a set of untraditional ballet experiences at the Kennedy Center.