Back in 1930s New York, James J. Braddock, a light heavyweight, got his big break in a major contest when he was presented with the opportunity to fill in on the fight card for a boxer after a last minute cancellation. In that fight, Braddock knocked out the No. 2 world contender in the 3rd round. The rest is history and made for a darn good movie starring Russell Crowe.
Wednesday night, corpsman Joseph Gorak got the chance to fill in on the card after an injury to Cory Stearns necessitated a casting reshuffle. Making his debut as The Prince in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella opposite Xiomara Reyes in the title role, Gorak delivered a knockout performance with a one-two punch of princely elegance and patrician technique. He has had a dedicated following for almost eight years – since his days in ABT II – and it seems to have taken an eternity for him to be cast in important roles such as in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker Prince, Lensky in Onegin, the Poet in La Sylphide, and now, finally, The Prince in Ashton’s Cinderella.
Gorak’s supple, shapely feet and legs would be almost too beautiful except for the fact that they support such an exquisite masculine frame and handsome face. His unusual flexibility is a mixed blessing. Only once during the evening did he employ it to excess – in a pirouette position where the foot in retiré seemed to be too far above the knee.
Speaking of pirouettes, Haglund is going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Frederick Ashton probably knew that he could follow up a double tour with a pirouette when choreographing the Prince’s variation, if he wanted. After all, Balanchine had just done that double tours-pirouette thing in Theme and Variations some months earlier in 1947. But didn’t Ashton intentionally follow the double tour with a two footed backward soutenu or pas de bourree? At least, that’s what Anthony Dowell did, and it seemed more elegant, if less splashy. Haglund didn’t mind watching Gorak’s quite impressive short series of double tours/double pirouette, but he doubts that when Frederick Ashton choreographed the Prince’s variation, he instructed, “– and this is where you insert a big trick of your own choosing.” If there is a desire to jack-up the technical level, why not try a double soutenu backwards before that next double tour? Give that a whirl, guys, or how about a triple tour en l’air. (Why aren't men doing triple tours on stage? Answer: The trick has an unattractive risk/reward ratio. Most audience members would never be able to count the rotations and know to applaud more loudly than for a double tour en l'air.)
That small complaint aside, a big congratulations is in order to Gorak for his superbly danced, finely acted, and theatrically detailed performance. His careful attentiveness to matching every one of his own lines with his partner’s was especially pleasing. Every arm, every profile, every hand, every snap of the head, and every leaning of the body was in complete harmony with Xiomara’s positions. Their partnering went better than anticipated with no meaningful mess-ups. They had to grind out that series of supported arabesques where the Prince guides Cinderella’s extended back arm over the top of her head, but they made it work. The journey to the final pose in the PdD didn't show Cinderella lifted over the Prince's back to the extent that it could have, but that too will come – perhaps even in this Saturday afternoon's performance.
Xiomara Reyes was pitch perfect in her characterization of Cinderella as the waif with a huge spirit and beckoning dreams. She felt no ill will toward her nasty step-sisters, and even found their awkward antics amusing, all the while wishing she could share their opportunities to go to the ball. She portrayed Cinderella’s innocence, her sadness, her wide-eyed disbelief of her good fortune, and her ultimate happiness with equal dramatic skill. Her soloist dancing burst with energy - her manege of pique turns, soutenus, chaines, and coupe jetes thrilled with their acceleration. One or two little glitches from over-applying force and a truncated balance were the only imperfections.
There were so many reasons to love Xiomara’s Cinderella not the least of which was her steadiness in managing the evening’s performance with the inexperienced young man making his most important debut to date. While Xiomara’s torso didn’t quite reach and bend as one hopes to see in Ashton’s work, she definitely hit many, if not most, of the staccato positions that produce those Kodak moments. Moving downstage with a series of pique to develope 4th arabesque plie, Xiomara’s Cinderella quickly glanced backward to her right at the prince standing on the steps before whipping her head to look over her left shoulder. The way in which she maneuvered this difficult choreography clearly communicated how her attention was going from upstage to downstage, something that many ballerinas muddle in the ballet. Her battement fouettes and port de bras sliced through the air like the ticking clock slicing away at her time.
Speaking of debuts, what a classically beautiful, sparkling debut by Devon Teuscher as the Fairy Godmother. She radiated such warmth and light during her variations in which her sturdy, unspoiled, unfussy technique served her well. Here was a dancer you could watch without thinking “Oh, I wish she wouldn’t do that” or “I wish she’d eliminate that tic” or “I wish she’d stop adding extra flourishes.” She was squeaky clean and her dancing was filled with light - a true beauty.
Sarah Lane's Fairy Spring was like tulips bursting open all over a hillside. She was stunning. April Giangeruso was lovely as the Fairy Winter; her battement fouettes sharp with a little of that no-nonsense snowflake attitude that we see in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker. Misty Copeland’s Fairy Autumn was a fierce force of nature; one could sense the leaves swirling around her. Isabella Boylston’s Fairy Summer was an example of unfortunate miscasting because the choreography relies so much on beautiful port de bras which Isabella does not possess. The fact that ABT continues to try to force this dancer on us as an example of its classicism is becoming more distasteful every day. Her lapses in concentration occasionally put her behind the other three Fairy Seasons during ensemble work, which is unfortunately her habit of several years.
Cinderella’s Step-Sisters, of course, ran the show from start to finish. Kenneth Easter and Thomas Forster were not going to let anyone suggest that they weren’t in charge. Folks, you have not seen real drama until you have seen Tom Forster’s Step-Sister run a long strand of pearls across her teeth while trying to seduce the Dancing Master, portrayed sportingly by Eric Tamm. Easter and Forster were very funny indeed and didn’t slap it up with unnecessary schtick. Haglund is not quite old enough to have seen the original production with Ashton and Robert Helpmann as the Step-Sisters, but they star in the classic video performance from 1969 with Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley. What made the Step-Sisters so successful as characters in that video were the advanced ages of the two performers. They really looked like they were trying their best to dance and were working at the very limits of their grace and coordination.
Arron Scott’s Jester got quite the workout throughout the evening, and Scott managed some mighty fancy footwork including a series of fouette-like pirouettes for which the passe leg jutted to the back.
The Corps de Ballet included some new male acquisitions who had that deer-in-the-headlights look for most of the night. The ladies who danced as Stars were quite lovely and seemed to know what they were doing. They understood the arm and head positions and how they were supposed to move in contrast to the Prokofiev’s darkly powerful waltzes.
All of the Cinderella productions that ABT has mounted over the years have been enjoyable. The most recent one by James Kudelka was pleasing in its unique application of art deco themes that were true to the time in which Ashton choreographed his own Cinderella. Kudelka’s choreography was no less complex or less representative of style than Ashton’s. His corps work was just as fiendish. Haglund recalls that after masses of dancers working closely together at high speeds exited the stage, one could hear breathy frantic exclamations of “Jesus!” coming from the wings. And Kudelka made more natural use of Prokofiev’s big waltzes. While it has been a dream come true to finally see Ashton’s Cinderella at ABT, Haglund hopes that the Kudelka production will make a return at some point.
The evening’s Pump Bump Award, a Prada design of clean lines and unspoiled beauty, is bestowed upon Devon Teuscher, whose debut may have been slightly less important than that of Joe Gorak who we all knew beforehand was going to be brilliant, but who really rose to the classical occasion and gave us a little hope for ABT’s classical future.