Cinderella Lite at A.B.T.: Girl Gets Guy, Blandly

It’s raining Cinderella s at the Met—11 performances in a row of James Kudelka’s version, which was born in Toronto two years ago. (Kudelka was then artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada; now he’s its resident choreographer.) Presumably, A.B.T. thinks that Cinderella—any Cinderella—will sell tickets, though I don’t remember that either Ben Stevenson’s version, just 10 years ago, or Baryshnikov’s, 13 years before that, was a box-office triumph.

Kudelka has turned out a lot of pieces in the last 20 years, among them three for A.B.T., none of which I can even vaguely remember, and one that we were exposed to at B.A.M. last year— The Contract (The Pied Piper)—which I’m afraid I’ll never forget. His Cinderella is careful, bland and intermittently effective, but it flattens the story rather than deepens it: It bears the same relation to a really interesting ballet—say the Cinderella made by Frederick Ashton—that a graphic novel bears to Madame Bovary.

Among the things that go right are some exciting passages that highlight the virtues of A.B.T.’s superb male contingent. Apart from the glorious Marcelo Gomes as Prince Charming, we get the Four Officers of Jared Matthews, Jesus Pastor, Sascha Radetsky and Gennadi Saveliev, as well as the two Hired Escorts of Isaac Stappas and Craig Salstein. This is casting from almost ridiculous strength. And the boys carry more than their share of the show.

Or you could say that Gomes is the show—which may be why the first act, in which he doesn’t appear, is so unremittingly dull. Gomes isn’t like the other fabulous A.B.T. guys—he isn’t a firecracker. He’s a beautiful large man, who moves through space so easily and yet so grandly that, watching him, you sit back with pleasure rather than sit forward for the thrills. His dancing is capacious, confident, open and modest. He’s touchingly attentive to his partner and to the story; although he can do all the danseur noble stuff, he never seems to be showing off. Whom is he like then? Peter Martins? But Martins was more withholding, more contained. Maybe (I know it sounds odd) Kyra Nichols, who has the same grandeur, command and graciousness.

Unfortunately, Gomes has been given absolutely nothing original to dance—Kudelka’s talent doesn’t lie in putting steps together. Nor has he done much more for Julie Kent, the first-cast Cinderella (and also Stevenson’s first-cast Cinderella a decade ago). Kent is lovely to look at, and she’s a strong dancer with a beautiful line. But her own tendency to blandness is reinforced by Kudelka’s stifled dance imagination. In Act I, she’s busy about the kitchen, polishing, mopping, sweeping, tidying. Her stepsisters are foolish rather than vicious; they’re fairly easy on her. The stepmother doesn’t even notice her, she’s so intent on her tippling. Kent’s Cinderella is more of an unsupervised maid than an abused orphan: She seems quite content as she frisks about the kitchen or daydreams by the fire of princes and weddings. Kent does it all pleasingly, but to what avail?

And then, at the climactic moment, there’s no climax. The silly sisters, all dolled up, go off to the party. The fairy godmother appears, summoning four soloists (Blossom, Petal, Moss, Twig) to perform not very interesting variations in costumes that could have been designed to hide any interest the variations may once have had. Then Cinderella gets ready for the ball.

But she doesn’t go—the curtain comes down on general jubilation but no slam-bang exit. Talk about letdowns!

Have I mentioned that this Cinderella is set in the 1920’s? If I haven’t, it’s because the concept doesn’t stretch very far—it only means that the guys are in tails and the girls in frocks, with marcelled hair. At the ball, Cinderella is again the happy camper, having a wonderful time taking in how the other half lives. The Prince, bored with the local debs and horrified at the vulgar shenanigans (pure shtick, by the way) of the stepsisters, spots her and it’s love at first sight. He’s ardent but respectful. She’s shy as a gazelle yet enraptured. A rhapsodic duet, all swooning lifts, seals their fate. And then another anticlimax, this one even more deflating: At the stroke of midnight, Cinderella doesn’t run off, losing a slipper in her haste. Instead, she’s stripped of her finery and left in her undies to be stared at. In other words, she’s embarrassed. And, in fact, she never actually leaves the ball, which makes it hard to understand why no one can locate her.

On the other hand, her arrival at the ball provided the one visual thrill of the evening: She doesn’t turn up in a carriage but descends from above in a huge, bejeweled and illuminated pumpkin. It’s a dazzling image.

The last act gives us the Prince and his officers rushing around the world seeking the missing Cinderella in foreign lands and climes, and here the guys and the Prince get to hurtle impressively back and forth across the stage. Meanwhile, Cinderella is happily at home in her kitchen, so in love that she doesn’t remove the one slipper left to her; she just covers it up with a sock and prances charmingly around with one foot en pointe, the other bare.

What follows is both conventional and unmoving. We should care when the lovers are reunited and Cinderella is raised from obscurity and saved from cruelty, but there’s been no cruelty and she hasn’t suffered. It makes no sense when the stepsisters fling themselves at her feet begging forgiveness—there’s nothing to forgive. And she couldn’t care less anyway. All this Cinderella wants is to settle down in domesticity with her feller. Nothing has been conveyed about love, about life, about generosity of spirit. All that’s happened is that a perfectly nice girl and a perfectly nice boy have hooked up. It’s a pleasant romantic comedy, but it ain’t no fairy tale.