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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 7 JANUARY 2019 — When the Romanian born set designer, Petrika Ionesco first suggested the idea of a ballet of Cinderella set in Hollywood, Rudolf Nureyev, the great Russian dancer, director of the Paris Opera ballet, was not very keen. But the idea grew on him and if in 1986 the ballet was not greeted as a resounding success by the critics despite a magnificent cast*, the work has mellowed and time has treated it kindly. Apart from cleverly adapting the fairy-tale into a show-case for the company, Nureyev turned it into a true declaration of love for the cinema of the 1930’s and 40’s while at the same time remaining faithful to Prokofiev’s intentions inherent in the score. The Russian composer brought each character, Cinderella, the ugly sisters, the stepmother, the alcoholic father and the movie-star prince to life via his music, giving precedence to the love story between Cinderella and her "prince".

Nureyev obviously enjoyed adapting the traditional fairy-tale into that of a "modern girl" escaping from the harsh realities of life via stardom and falling in love with her leading man along the way. Considering Prokofiev’s music the most ‘westernised’ he ever composed, Nureyev remained faithful to the style of his compatriot’s score in his choreography. All the characters of the original story are there with their own leitmotiv, the only dramatic change being that of the fairy godmother who becomes a movie producer whose magic transforms a pumpkin into a glamorous  limousine before our eyes. It’s kitsch and gimmicky but entertaining nonetheless, with moments of beautiful dancing, great comedy and impressive ensembles, enhanced by the costumes of Hanae Mori, albeit with certain notable exceptions.

The ballet opens at Cinderella’s father’s diner in Hollywood  where her two stepsisters are busily quarreling, bickering over outfits to wear for a small part in a film. The scenery is quite splendid, with the Statute of Liberty standing guard in the background  suggesting a happy ending. Cinderella is sweeping the floor and the presence of Ludmilla Pagliero, luminous, in the title role together with the performances of Ida  Viikinkoski and Emilie Cozette as the bitchy ugly sisters, ill-treating and bullying Cinderella, set the tone of the ballet.

Pagliero touched perfection as Cinderella. Fragile and gentle, with her small expressive face, she sublimated Nureyev’s beautiful choreography in the first act.  Her eloquent, graceful arm movements  became as one with the music. Utterly delightful as she spied a black top hat, coat  and trousers on a coat stand, she gives free rein to her dreams, dressing up as Charlie Chaplin and tap dancing around the stage with the coat stand as partner, reminiscent of Fred Astaire in a film she (and Nureyev) had seen. At the film studio In Act II, elegant in Hanae Mori’s white dress and jacket, she dances perhaps imagining herself as Cyd Charisse, only slightly less at ease in her high-heeled crystal shoes, before she becomes aware of the march of time, and flees before her dream crumbles away.

However, the kindest thing one can say about Act II is that with a tumult of characters passing through, it is chaotic. Crammed with starlets and various other hangers-on, there’s a Buster Keaton like jailbird, a Groucho Marx lookalike waving his cigar as producer and six trembling vahines being sacrificed to an enormous King Kong dominating the stage. The four transvestites, along with the 12 young men disguised as the hours in their ghastly costumes of purple and silver add nothing to the work.

Throughout the ballet, however, we are treated to a sumptuous performance by Emilie Cozette and  Ida Viikinkoski, as the ugly sisters. The roles were created for two étoiles and it has been an error in the past to undercast. Whether in the first act, the second or the third, they are both very funny and totally natural. Never falling into the trap of the ridiculous, their subtle cruelty has been overshadowed by their hilarious spats, squabbles, and infantile behaviour.

I asked Emilie Cozette, who was nominated étoile after her 2007 performance as Cinderella why she had chosen to dance the role of the "pink sister", role created by Monique Loudières in 1986. "Because it’s a role for me", she laughed. "It’s such fun to dance and what I love most is to interpret a part. Even if you dance the sisters fifty times, it’s always different. You just have to be  beautiful as Cinderella; everything just happens to her and it no longer interested me. I’ve watched my two little boys, naughty ones, and they’ve given me all sorts of ideas. I’ve seen my two-year old trying to grab a toy car off his brother, and  so have used the same gestures when I fight over a dress with Ida. And I’ve also had a great time with my hairdresser, making shiny corkscrew curls that wobble when I waggle my head. I play a lot with my curls", she grinned.  "Happily we’ve been given a lot of space for improvisation."

The recently nominated étoile, Germain Louvet, tall and elegant, was a charming Prince Charming, and an attentive partner, particularly in the lovely pas de deux with Pagliero at the end of Act II. After finding his Cinderella at the end, it was touching to see the way he scooped her up the moment he saw her, indifferent as to whether the shoe fitted or not. Mention should also be made of Hugo Vigliotti, excellent as the film director’s assistant. And last but far from least, all praise to the inspired conducting of Vello Pahn, at the helm of The Orchestre Pasdeloup.

Despite its uneven qualities, the ballet, strongly reminiscent of a Hollywood musical comedy, has roles for everyone. Not only were the corps de ballet, in fine form, given plenty to dance, but there were interesting solo roles for many members of the company whose enthusiasm for the work was shared by the audience. It was by giving members of the company so many occasions to dance his complicated, difficult, but sometimes beautiful choreography that Rudolf Nureyev made the French company one of the finest in the world back in 1986. When one can dance his creations, one can dance anything.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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