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The Joffrey in Los Angeles, Ashton's "Cinderella"


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#1 Cygnet

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Posted 29 January 2010 - 11:10 AM

Last night the Joffrey Ballet opened at the Los Angeles Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavillion with a sumptuous production of Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." This production was designed by David Walker and will be given five performances (Jan 28 - 31) . The Joffrey has a significant history with Los Angeles. During the 1980s, the company maintained a bi-coastal residency between New York and L.A. During that decade, a former Royal Ballet dancer named Ashley C. Wheater was on the Joffrey's roster. Yesterday evening, Mr. Wheater stated with great emotion that, " . . . it was Gerald's (Arpino's) dream that the Joffrey would dance Ashton's "Cinderella." Wheater trained at the Royal Ballet School, was accepted into the Royal and worked directly with Ashton in several productions at Covent Garden. From there, he joined the London Festival Ballet and worked with Nureyev and Glen Tetley and became a Principal under Artistic Director John Field. In 1982, he left the UK for the Australian Ballet and three years later, Gerald Arpino invited him to join the Joffrey. In 1989, he went to the San Francisco Ballet, and was appointed Ballet Master, then made assistant to the AD, Helgi Tomasson. In 2007 Mr. Wheater was appointed Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet. Having studied and rehearsed this ballet under the Founding Choreographer of the Royal Ballet, Wheater brings authoritative knowledge to the table regarding the intricacy, grace, and subtle irony which is the essence of Ashton's style.

This run of "Cinderella" is important for several reasons. First and foremost, Ashton is rarely performed today, and most certainly here in the U.S. Unfortunately, today his work is barely performed by the company he helped Dame Ninette de Valois found. Indeed, in other threads on this site there has been lengthy discussion about the neglect of homegrown British talent, and that the current management at Covent Garden has neglected scheduling Ashton's work on the playbills. Therefore, anytime and anywhere the first full-length British ballet is performed it's both historic and an event. Thus, Wheater and the Joffrey paid homage to this genius choreographer by delivering a stellar and witty performance. Wheater enlisted Michael Somes' widow Wendy Ellis Somes to help coach the ballerina Victoria Jaiani and the corps. So, this was a double dip of authoritative knowledge and instruction - from the source.

Cinderella was danced by Victoria Jaiani from Tblisi, Georgia. Unfortunately, the program had no bios on the company members, only names and photos. Jaiani was technically secure, subdued in acting, but pleasing in the role. In Act 1 she offered a straight forward interpretation of the heroine, and telegraphed a happy-go-lucky, cheerful Cinderella, as if she were content with her downtrodden situation. In the comic sections she was technically sharp particularly in the broom variation, (the Gavotte, before her Fairy Godmother appeared). Throughout the evening, she was strongest in Ashton's delicate and detailed pointe work: Her piourettes and tours were all sure and well executed. That said, her complete Act 1 could have had more dramatic gravitas, meaning she could have tried to convey a little more emotion re her deceased mother, (sadness/grief rather than pleasant blank stares), and the distinction between her lowly place in the home (humility), vs. that of her ugly step-sisters (spoiled privilege & favor). In short, in Act 1 Scene 1 Jaiani was technically sound, well prepped, but dramatically bland.

Cinderella's stepsisters were brilliantly and hilariously portrayed by David Gombert and Michael Smith! Gombert and Smith danced the Ashton and Helpmann ugly step-sisters with robust slapstick (ala Les Trocks), and very physical and intricate footwork. They provided comic relief, but they played against Jaiani, (see paragraph above). Therefore they almost outshone her in Act 1 Scene 1 in the "commitment" department. In Acts 1 -3 they maintained a high level of comic and kinesiological energy and were thoroughly entertaining. Cinderella's Father, Patrick Simoniello mimed in the same note as Jaiani.
Notably, there's no wicked step-mother in Ashton's production.

The glory of Ashton's choreography are the patterns he staged for the The Fairy Godmother, the Stars, the Seasons and the Courtiers. In Act 1 Scene 2, The Fairy Godmother was danced beautifully by April Daly. In her appearance and variations she dominated the corps with her powerful technique, balances, bourrees and engaging stage presence. Here at last we had total belief and commitment - the fairy tale began with her entrance. Likewise, in succession the Season Fairies went from strength to strength with each entrance and variation. Ashton's variations are both brilliant and fiendishly difficult to execute. The Joffrey fielded a well prepared corps of fairies and stars: The difficulties were concealed by excellent technique. I'm going to name each of the ladies that conquered Ashton's mine-field of steps in the dream sequence. Fairy Spring - Allison Walsh, Fairy Summer - Chirstine Rocas, Fairy Autumn - Yumelia Garcia, and Fairy Winter - Valerie Robin. Each fairy conveyed the very essence of the season that she portrayed. The 12 Stars: Elizabeth Hansen, Jaime Hicky, Anastacia Holden, Stacy Joy Keller, Erin McAfee, Caitlin Meighan, Amber Neumann, Alexis Polito, Abigail Simon, Jenny Winton, Joanna Wozniak and Kara Zimmerman. They danced with both precision, grace and thorough exactitude - very sharp! Ladies A+++ to you all!

Act 2 - The Ball

Prokofiev built the music in Act 2 layer upon layer, increasing it's intensity where it's "weighted" towards midnight. Likewise, Ashton did the same with his steps, beginning with a cleared stage and the Jester sitting still and alone at the top of the stairs. As time goes by, the choreography increases in difficulty and intensity - it's also "weighted" towards midnight. The Jester was brilliantly danced by Derrick Agnoletti. Agnoletti is a buoyant aerialist. His cabrioles, split & grande jetes, entrechats, precise beats - all were done as if they were child's play. He was absolutely wonderful! The only distraction was his scepter, a prop which had too many bells on it. The Prince's Friends, Jonathan Dummar, Dylan Guittierez, Temur Suluashvili and Mauro Villaneuva were well matched and mirrored one another - which is saying something nowadays. Who knew that the Joffrey had such deep pockets in male casting options? Anyone of them could have been the Prince. The Prince was wonderfully danced by Cuban trained Miguel Angel Blanco. In Blanco, the Joffrey has a strong and powerful danseur noble par excellence. He was every inch the regent at his soiree, dominating the stage. The two partners for the ugly step-sisters were "Napoleon" and "Wellington" Brian Gebhart and Fabrice Calmels. They were the perfect foils for Gombert and Smith. The courtiers danced as one throughout Act 2. They delineated the design of Ashton's choreography clearly, and this ballet is a very detailed choregraphic text.

In Act 2 Jaiani came alive. Her entrance en pointe down the stairs was solemn and regal. Here at last was the mysterious Princess, fresh and immaculate in a white tutu and flowing cape. She and Blanco danced both the waltz and the pas de deux with the wonder of love at first sight and palpable romantic chemistry. The famous tours - especially the tour in clockwise and then counter-clockwise direction around the Prince, was spot on. Blanco however, proved slightly less secure in his variation; there was a sudden change of direction in the piourettes, but he finished cleanly. When midnight came, Jaiani telegraphed real panic. She couldn't get past the courtiers and kept running into the Prince. Finally she escaped, though the stage craft barely concealed her behind five courtiers, as she rushed off to the wings stage left. The Cinders double in rags, was the one who
actually made it to the stairs and out of the ballroom.

Act 3 continues with excerpts from the Prince's First Gallop - without a break as the Ball guests leave. Some of the courtiers cross the stage in front of the giant clock backdrop, along with the step-sisters. Incidentally, many audience members were roaming as well, unsure if there was a second intermission: *(One clue that it wasn't intermission is that the house lights were still off). The Prince also follows close behind with the glass slipper on a red eye mission to find his princess. The backdrop lifts and once again we're in the living room of Cinderella's house. Ashton's remembrance monologue is the culmination of her whole experience. Where Jaiani came alive in Act 2 just before, once again she reverted back to the bland/happy-go-lucky Cinderella of Scene 1. At the end of this variation, there should be a profound sense of regret and sad resignation, not only in the dramatics but the eloquence of the bourrees. It's also in the music. Jaiani's interpretation at the end of this solo conveyed the sense that she played a joke on her family and got away with it. Enter the Prince and his four friends. Quickly, Jaiani switches "on" again when she sees Blanco. The shoe fitting was touchingly played by Gombert and Smith. Blanco and Jaiani find one another again (well, a few hours later), when the mate slipper falls from her apron, and he recognizes her. The Fairy Godmother reappears and transports them back to the ballroom where the stars and the couple are crowned and married. The Prince and his Princess walk slowly up the stairs, arm in arm, showered with gold dust and sparkles. Beautifully done!
In summary, this was a wonderful opening night performance. The cast is the same for the rest of the run.

The Music Corner: The Joffrey was accompanied by the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, conducted by (?). Neither the souvenir program, or the insert named the conductor; but the musicians' names were listed. Whoever the conductor was last night, _______ was in simpatico with the entire ensemble, especially the couple, the ugly sisters, the Fairy Godmother and the Seasons. The L.A.O.O. played the score with punch, speed, passion, and the comic irony that Prokofiev so skillfully created.

Opening Night Trivia: The performance was supposed to begin at 7:30 p.m. (or as is usual a little after). When I arrived and was seated it was about 7:00 p.m. The pre-performance lecture was in progress onstage in front of the "CINDERELLA" curtain. It was lead by Mr. Wheater, Mrs. Ellis-Somes and an unidentified (for me) Music Center official. The lecture ended at 7:20 pm. The performance itself did not begin until 7:52 pm because Mr. Wheater and said unidentified Music Center official, read prepared statements and chatted about the history of the Joffrey Ballet and Ashtons ballet. Then they introduced the Director of Dance Presentations, Ranae Williams Niles in the audience. IMO all of this should have been done during the pre-performance lecture.

More Opening Night Trivia: After curtain calls, the patrons had to be detoured out the side entrances of the theatre to exit, and those in the balconies had to troop down several stories of stairs, because the opening night party was already in full swing, jazz band and all, on the mezzanine and orchestra floors.

#2 bart

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Posted 29 January 2010 - 12:14 PM

cygnet, it's wonderful to read your report about the Joffrey. I didn't realize that they would be touring such a big production. (They are coming down to south Florida later this winter with their more usual mixed bill.)

It's a pleasure to read that Yumelia Garcia was so effective as the Autumn Fairy. Garcia was one of the victims of the collapse of Ballet Florida last winter, and I'm delighted to see that she has moved onward AND upward.

I love your idea of a "Trivia" post-script to the performance review. Maybe all of us should add one, when relevant.

More Opening Night Trivia: After curtain calls, the patrons had to be detoured out the side entrances of the theatre to exit, and those in the balconies had to troop down several stories of stairs, because the opening night party was already in full swing, jazz band and all, on the mezzanine and orchestra floors.

It's SO comforting to learn that, even in these bad economic times, money and hubris continue to flourish in some parts of the country, regardless of the effect on others. There's no Wicked Stepmother in the ballet. Was she perhaps out in the lobby organizing the party? :wink:

#3 Memo

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Posted 01 March 2010 - 09:25 AM

Yumelia Garcia also danced Cinderella in one of the performances I saw. It was a lovely production and played to full houses in Los Angeles. I would say it was a huge success.


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