Immersed in the magic: Ballet RI’s ‘Cinderella’

Ballet RI in 'Cinderella'. Photo by Dylan Giles.
Ballet RI in 'Cinderella'. Photo by Dylan Giles.

The Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Providence, RI.
May 10, 2024.

Sometimes we just need a break, an escape…modern life can be a lot. Sometimes it’s a breath of fresh air, a cool drink of water on a hot day, to dive into classic stories – stories full of mystery and majesty. That’s what Ballet RI’s Cinderella felt like for me: immersion in a sweet, sparkling world away from contemporary troubles. Ballet RI Artistic Curator and Resident Choreographer Yury Yanowsky choreographed the work, drawing upon Sergei Prokofiev’s score. It was the final program in the company’s 2023-2024 season

At the same time, aesthetic restraint – taking it to a 7 or 8 rather than a 10 – only enhanced my captivation. Holding back just a bit helped it all feel real, rather than overly indulgent. I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief. Balance was the prevailing principle. Additionally, this was the second Cinderella I saw this year. Noticing slightly different creative choices was delightfully intriguing. The devil’s in the details…and so can be the wonder. 

This Cinderella rendition began with child Cinderella (Emma Gaines) and her parents. Tragically, we saw her mother (Audrey Lukacz) perish before her. Cut to years later in the next scene, and Cinderella was busy with her chores as her over-the-top stepsisters bumbled about. They ruled the roost…or at least tried to…and constantly attempted to one-up each other. 

Heather Nichols and Katherine Bickford gave a theatrical masterclass with these characters — fully committing to the bit, but not going so wild as to feel unbelievable. They managed to maintain exquisite control and grace in movement even while embodying something just a bit out of control. 

James Kronzer’s set – a table, a few chairs, a fireplace and thresholds (representing doors) – was similarly realistic. It was just enough to scaffold this “fairy tale” world we were invited into. Judanna Lynn’s costumes had the same quality: adorned, refined, but stopping short of opulent. They felt like what people might actually wear in a time of princes and princesses. 

Soon into Act I, we got to enjoy Cinderella dancing alone, before her fireplace and with her broom: a young woman making some joy for herself. Alexandria Troianos danced the role with full spaciousness and breath, contributing to both the ease and strength in her presentation. Her elegantly arched feet and fluid spine were a true treat. 

Cinderella only enjoyed peaceful solitude for so long. Her family members returned, preparing for the ball that Cinderella wouldn’t attend…or so they all thought. Lessons with dance masters (Luis Ocaranza and Arif Toleugazin) were a “meta” moment in this ballet, and offered further opportunities for the stepsisters to bumble about and compete with each other. Cinderella, however, had all the poise that a lady dancing at a ball could hope for. 

Before long Cinderella met her Fairy Godmother (Emma Guertin), the Fairies of all four seasons, and their attendants. It was a whole magical army there to bless Cinderella. They danced in a forest: mysterious, beautiful, enchanted. Yet part of the set conveying the forest’s tall, slender trees remained over the stage throughout – nature’s power and will omnipresent. What is good, what is beautiful, what is right would prevail. 

Dressed and ready for the ball, off in her circular chariot, Cinderella was transformed. Before she entered the palace, we saw sophisticated guests dancing. In the “less can be more” feel of the show, they also moved with a sort of pleasing humility. Calling attention to oneself would only be in poor taste. Moving in concert, in harmony, was the aim here. 

Also notable was the softness in their movement, the release through head and spine. This was very much ballet shaped as court dance, yet Yanowsky’s satisfying contemporary dance idiom was also evident. It even contributed to the realism at hand; as poised as they were, these were truly humans dancing – not ballet dancers at court. The Jester (Clay Murray) added a bit of frivolity to the formalism, making the aesthetic and atmospheric balance all the more complete. 

The stepsisters certainly tried to pull attention to themselves (and away from each other) – yet once Cinderella entered, all eyes were on her. That was certainly true of the Prince (Brian Gomez), supporting her in movement with both passion and regal stoicism. 

In a memorable structural choice, they danced alone onstage and with the ensemble: a peek into what it might feel like when they could only see each other, they were so enraptured, and what it was actually like in the crowded ballroom. As one of many strong staging choices, a circle of dancers moved offstage – women floating above their partners, lifted high and sure – while Cinderella and her Prince drew closer. 

Yet, this dreamy atmosphere could only last for so long; midnight tick, tocked ever closer. As all who are familiar with the story know, that was the end of Cinderella’s time here. The clock struck menacingly, and – with a just-right amount of accent and jerkiness – an ensemble embodied the hands of a clock. We saw just a glimpse of Cinderella back in her plain brown dress before she was gone. The Prince had one thing left of her, however: that fated shoe. 

Cinderella was soon back in her life of dusty dreariness, the short dream of the palace ball behind her. She found one of her fancy ballroom shoes, however. Neither of them knew it, but that connected the Prince and Cinderella – each having one of her shoes. There was hope in that, and the resonance of the sweetness that they had found in each other. It was one of my favorite moments in the entire production – no matter that it was quiet and subtle. That’s where the brightest magic can be. 

The Prince soon arrived at Cinderella’s home. Of course the stepsisters did all they could to draw his attention and stuff their feet in the (too small for them) shoe. Hopping on one leg with the shoe dangling off one foot: a picture of hilarious desperation. The truth comes out soon enough, our shared stories tell us – and this one was no exception. It was Cinderella’s shoe, and the lovers had found each other again. 

The narrative luxuriated from there, taking its time and allowing some virtuosity and opulence.  Having been more understated for most of the program, it could expand in these qualities; it had somewhere to go. At this point, that felt only appropriate and in service of the story at hand. 

As definitely a highlight of the program, and perhaps the highlight, Cinderella’s ethereal army was back to dance and help celebrate her marriage to the Prince. Dancing behind them, they held golden lights, splintered and multi-pronged like tree branches (lighting design from Kat C. Zhou). They were lighting the way for her: through mystery, through uncertainty, and yes, magic. 

“Lovely,” I wrote in my notes, for the hundredth time. If there’s one word that encapsulated this program, that’s the one. There’s nothing wrong with – every so often – immersing oneself in something lovely, something pure, something comfortingly familiar. One could even argue that it’s essential rest and recovery from a confusing, sometimes frightening world out there. 

That rest and recovery can feel all the more nourishing when the magically immersive world feels real: through aesthetic restraint, through care, through command of craft. Thank you, Ballet RI, for lighting our way there – just as Cinderella’s ethereal supporters lit her way through the mysterious, majestic forest. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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