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Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Cinderella in the Jazz Age

By Victoria Ellingham
  • Sonia Rodriguez in The National Ballet of Canada's Cinderella / Photo by Christopher Wahl
  • Guillaume Côté and Sonia Rodriguez in The National Ballet of Canada's Cinderella / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The National Ballet of Canada’s Cinderella is certainly not aiming to be flowery. The moment the lights engulf the stage on opening night, November 12, it is obvious this will not be another baroque production. The audience does not need to be informed they have been transported into the Jazz Age. David Boecheler’s set demonstrates this with the Art Deco designs enveloping the kitchen as does James Kudleka’s jazz-inspired choreography. The warm, autumn-tinged colouring emanates from Boecheler’s set and Christopher Dennis’ lighting design.

Act I begins with Cinderella, played by the ethereal Sonia Rodriguez, dozing by the fire while dreaming of her future wedding and liberation from her housekeeping duties. Cinderella’s destructive stepsisters wreak havoc, destroying all her labour and quickly breaking her sad solitude. Together, Tanya Howard and Rebekah Rimsay create a sublime chemistry as the stepsisters, melding not only their undeniable precision and technique, but also their comedic timing. From the moment they graced the stage, they connected with each other while each manifesting individual, absurd personalities. Rimsay seemed to embody a whimsical character in the style of comedienne Carol Burnett, while Howard’s presence on stage was similar to the late Lucille Ball. Cinderella’s drunken stepmother eventually follows, delightfully played by Lise-Marie Jourdain. All three had immediately stolen the entire performance. One of the most memorable scenes appears later at the ball when the stepsisters dance in a hilarious display while attempting to ensnare the Prince.

When assistants stream in to prepare the stepsisters for the upcoming ball, a farcical moment occurs with the dance instructor (Francesco Gabriele Frola) when given the cumbersome task of trying to teach these maladroit women how to dance with their endearing escorts (Jonathan Renna and Piotr Stanczyk). A visit from her fairy godmother and creatures that peer at her from inside the hearth interrupts Cinderella’s daydreaming once again.

Fairy Godmother Lorna Geddes radiated in her beautiful, turn-of-the-century dress and hat, while her woodland fairies fluttered across the stage effortlessly and in sync with their fluid courus. The highlight, however, were the sinister Pumpkinheads in smart evening suits demonstrating to Cinderella that she must leave before the clock strikes twelve with a succession of sautés matched perfectly with Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Jordana Daumec, Alexandra MacDonald, Tina Pereira and Hannah Fischer, (the garden fairies Blossom, Petal, Moss and Twig respectively) assist Cinderella, while demonstrating their talent through precise jumps or bound balances and turns.

Act II begins with the audience’s introduction to Prince Charming (Guillaume Côté). His breathtaking tours en l’air land softly in extension, suspended in time among the sequinned partygoers and incognito fairies. The guests dance more of a jazz style rather than the classical technique seen in other story ballets, with parallel legs and layouts in place of the usual turned out limbs and vertical torsos expected in ballet. Elements of the Charleston also appear.

Cinderella herself steals the spotlight, descending into the ballroom in a grand pumpkin, guided by the delicate fairies. In the destined lovers’ first dance alone, Kudelka’s choreography produces a fluid partnership, with steps that travel like liquid. However, there was a precarious moment between the two stars halfway through their dance during one of the lifts. Fortunately, they did not allow themselves to be rattled by this and finished together beautifully. When the clock strikes twelve, the Pumpkinheads reappear to strip Cinderella of her joy, gown and one sparkling shoe. The image of the fairy next to Cinderella, crying in despair as Rodriguez clung to her dignity, was quite haunting.

In the final act, the Prince and his cream-clad entourage journey in search of his lost love. They sail through clouds powerfully evoking a Frank Johnston painting, and encounter an assortment of women. Through clever choreography, an enchanting Amelia Earhart transforms into her own airplane.

With the revelation that Cinderella is the true owner of the shoe, the horrible stepfamily slithers away in shame, while sharing a bottle of booze. Such a pathetic image were these three, one could almost sympathise with them. The happy couple celebrate in a quaint wedding in the garden and finally settle by the fire together. Although both Rodriguez and Côté produced impeccable technical feats, there was a lack of chemistry between the two. At times, they appeared to be dancing for themselves, which made their love story hard to believe.

Overall, Cinderella was a hilarious yet somewhat dark trip into a fascinating era. The atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties persists throughout the performance, most prominently in the ballroom scene in the costumes and set design, in the score played by the talented orchestra and often in the dancing itself.

A familiar fairy tale reworked into a shimmering yet also disquieting world might leave some audience members questioning how well they know their favourite bedtime story.

The National Ballet of Canada performs Cinderella at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from November 12 through 20. 

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