State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine presents a rapturous ‘Cinderella’ at NJPAC

by ROBERT JOHNSON

COURTESY OF STATE BALLET THEATRE OF UKRAINE

Maria Lolenko and Olexandr Litvinov in The State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine’s “Cinderella.”

Dreams of love were never sweeter than in the fairy-tale ballet “Cinderella,” which the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine brought to Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, Jan. 21. Ballet master Andrei Litvinov’s simplified but serviceable staging for this touring company from Dnipro passes over some details in the libretto, but Sergei Prokofiev’s majestic score carries the story from beginning to end.

The durability of this 20th-century classic owes everything to Prokofiev. From its very first notes, the music sets the scene, conjuring first an atmosphere of weariness and drudgery and then the spine-tingling mystery of Cinderella’s transformation. Prokofiev’s wit is essential, as comedy relieves his portrait of the title character’s misfortunes and in places gives the music a rollicking and satiric air. The composer’s sensitivity to the passage of time, and youth’s evanescence, lends an adult perspective to what might otherwise be a childish romp.

When the curtain rises, our heroine is hard at work scrubbing the floor while one of her wicked Step-sisters lies sprawled on an upstage sofa sleeping with her mouth open. With the arrival of a second, more energetic Step-sister, the sofa becomes crowded, but the nasty frumps interrupt their bickering to torment a fragile-looking Maria Lolenko, who dances the part of the downtrodden orphan.

Cinderella’s spirit remains unbroken, however, and amid the Step-sisters’ alarming preparations to attend the Prince’s ball, Lolenko finds a moment to dance a winsome solo in which her dreams of love awaken. It must be this faith in her own possibilities that transforms this Cinderella from a waif into a sparkling beauty, since Litvinov omits the scene in which the girl’s kindness to an old beggar woman earns a royal reward.

COURTESY OF STATE BALLET THEATRE OF UKRAINE

State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine dancers, in “Cinderella.”

The scene of Cinderella’s magical transformation is a multi-layered affair — too complicated, in fact, since it involves cadres of under-rehearsed children recruited locally. The tiniest tots impersonate mice, while others stand in for the Time-Dwarves whose music, when they warn Cinderella not to tarry past the stroke of midnight, portrays the terrible implacability of the passing hours. Here, this warning is downplayed, but the episode still features attractive soloists representing the Four Seasons. Iryna Avramenko displays her gentleness as the Fairy of Spring. Olena Badalova is especially musical as the Fairy of Summer. Olena Sitkevich darts and spins impetuously as the Fairy of Autumn; while Yumeko Ide brings a touch of lyricism to the Winter Fairy role.

At the Prince’s ball, courtiers perform a stately dance followed by lively couples in a passepied. When the Step-sisters work their charms on the Majordomo, they nearly dislocate his limbs, but Oleksii Chorych seems more astonished than outraged. The Step-sisters’ variations can be slapstick, or simply gauche. Yulia Bielan turns to blow a kiss over her shoulder, hoping no one will notice that she has ended facing the wrong way, and this sly trick is as funny as Iryna Avramenko’s more obvious pratfalls. The Prince, Alexandr Litvinov, bounds into this marriage trap little suspecting what awaits him.

Cinderella’s first appearance at the ball, in profile, is unprepossessing, but when she takes the Prince’s hand a spark ignites; and as the crowd parts for her, Lolenko grandly takes possession of her role. Soon, the whole company is chasing this enigmatic guest, and the Prince is hopelessly smitten.

After the obligatory star turns, Cinderella and the Prince meet quietly and this private moment together builds into a rapturous pas de deux, which finds its ultimate expression in a lift to the shoulder. The courtiers return, bringing with them the delirium of the waltz, whirling fouettés for Cinderella, and jetés en tournant for the Prince. Just as the ball reaches its frantic climax … the clock strikes midnight.

We all know how the story ends, but somehow Prokofiev and his artistic collaborators still manage to generate an atmosphere of eagerness and suspense, as the Prince dances a yearning solo, mooning his way around the world in search of his beloved; and as Cinderella’s cold-hearted Step-mother, Darya Dubrovina, makes a violent attempt to force her hoof into the glass slipper. Cinderella herself has matured, and Lolenko shows us her character’s newfound confidence as she wards off her Step-sisters with a broom.

This production concludes with another pas de deux, of course, but also with a surprising touch of realism, as Litvinov takes Lolenko into his arms and implants a lingering kiss. Romantics in the audience will be thoroughly satisfied.

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