Israel Ballet's Cinderella Falls Flat

The dancers are good – in some cases excellent – and the execution generally polished, so the Israel Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’ looks professional. Still, there is the sense of a missed opportunity.

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A scene from 'Cinderella.'
A scene from 'Cinderella.' Credit: Oren Cohen

The Israel Ballet commissioned Ronald Savkovic, until recently the artistic director of the ballet company in the National Theater of Rijeka, in Croatia, to create his version of “Cinderella” – music by Sergei Prokofiev – for a world premiere. This is not the first time the Israel Ballet has produced a world premiere of “Cinderella.” In 1986, Berta Yampolsky, the founder and longtime artistic director of the company, mounted a production with her choreography, and then offered a renewed version in 1993. It was such an overwhelming success that the company was invited to appear with the production in China.

The present version contains nothing new. The familiar story unfolded in a movement language without any surprise solutions. The first act of the two in the work, which is set in the stepmother’s home before the ball, was disappointing, being void of a fairytale’s magical innocence. The sisters, Lisa Menich and Katrina Barkov, were not ugly in the least, and perhaps I’ve got used to seeing these parts danced by men, which renders them grotesque. Here they were presented as two stupid, rude sisters who constantly quarrel. One chews gum, the other imagines she is a princess from “Swan Lake” and flaps her arms.

The mother (Claire Bayliss Nagar) possessed an impressive presence. She was presented as pretty and vulgar, with puffed blonde hair, sunglasses, a short skirt and high heels. All in all, she looked rather like a matchmaker. The dancing teacher (Ludwig Ispirian), who arrived to prepare the sisters for the ball, repeatedly performed pirouettes and fouette turns, and did them well. He possesses impressive virtuoso ability, though dancing is more than just fancy spins and turns. In any event, the main problem at this stage was actually that Cinderella (Tomoko Takahashi) looked quite happy. She smiled as she cleaned the house and collected the clothes scattered on the floor. She was barely given movement materials to execute, and the little she was called on to do was bland.

The fairy godmother (Yelena Rosenberg), who at first was wrapped in a black coat and was hunched, looked more like a scary witch than a grandmother. But when she cast off the black cloth a transformation occurred and the traditional beautiful fairy was revealed in a white gown. Rosenberg’s dancing afforded the character an image of softness and warmth. She was accompanied by four young couples, the women in identical white ball gowns, the men in black tails. It was impossible to guess that they represented the four seasons of the year. The movements were identical and banal, though their execution was fine.

While our eyes were on the couples’ plain dance, Cinderella has stolen out of the house and returned in a black witch-like costume, but then sheds it and is magically revealed to be wearing a ball gown. It’s a glittering turquoise gown, a spectacular affair, but it doesn’t have the innocence of a girl of about 17. Cinderella has instantly become a beautiful, mature woman, an exotic bird.

Noble, tormented prince

The second act, set in a palace ballroom with a handsome staircase, was better. The entry of the female dancers as they seemingly glide down the stairs was lovely. But where were the men? The only male was the dancing teacher, with dozens of girls as students. Again he showed off his impressive leaps and turns, and I continued to remain convinced that he is capable of more than being a virtuoso stuntman. It was only after Cinderella arrived, and in her wake the fairy godmother and the four seasons-of-the-year couples, that males made their appearance in the kingdom. Cinderella stood out in her gorgeous turquoise gown against the backdrop of the girls in delicate white dresses. The wicked sisters were attired in elegant black gowns that were more suited to widows than to their wild character.

The character of the prince (Ivan Tarkhanov) was intriguing. Contrary to the conventional image of a prince, he wasn’t tall, though he exuded a noble presence, somewhat tormented, rather like a poet. He demonstrated impressive ability in leaps during his solo, but in contrast to the usual prince, he was not a happy host in his palace but an individual seeking love that he has not yet found, a quality that lent an unexpected color to his dancing.

Also surprising was the entrance of one of the wicked sisters, who slid down the banister like a naughty girl. The dance segments involving the prince and the wicked sisters was peppered with humor. When he tried to elude one of them she grabbed him by the leg as though he were a prey and seemed about to bite him. He then seized her by the foot and the hand, lifted her into the air and spun her around as though in a circus routine, constantly gathering speed, before hurling her to land full-body on the floor.

The duet between the prince and Cinderella featured moving moments that persuaded the viewer they were a happy couple. The segment of the striking of the clock was unexpected: instead of one clock, a number of grandfather clocks suddenly appeared – they’d been hidden in the back curtain – and the numbers on their faces lit up in conjunction with the chimes. The more the dance progressed, the more powerful it became, thanks to the sincerity of the soloists’ execution and the “true love” they projected. Who could remain unmoved?

My expectation for a world premiere of “Cinderella” is that it should contain some element of originality, either in the movement language or in its various solutions to the challenges of the fairytale. In this case it seems that the idea was to mount a new production quickly and at low cost. Because the dancers are good, in some cases excellent, and the execution generally polished, the overall result was professional. Still, I came away with the feeling that an opportunity had been missed. I had higher expectations from the Israel Ballet. With dancers of this caliber a more intriguing production could have been mounted, even with low costs. Still, at the conclusion of the ballet I heard a mother sitting behind me ask her daughter if she enjoyed the performance, and the girl answered with great confidence that yes, she had.

The next performances of “Cinderella” will be staged Dec 29 at 18:00 in Netanya; Jan 14 at 19:00, Ma’alot; Feb 3 at 17:00, Kiryat Shmona; and Feb 6 at 11:30, Modi’in (all at Heichal Hatarbut).