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The San Diego Civic Auditorium
March 3, 2008
*This review first appeared on SanDiego.com

Going to California Ballet’s production of “Cinderella” was like walking into a giant cupcake. Naturally, I wore pink, as did most of the girls between the ages of five and seven in the audience (along with their parents, naturally).

“Cinderella” may not be as widely re-imagined, re-interpreted, or re-staged as some of the other classic ballets such as “Swan Lake,” “Romeo & Juliet” or even “Sleeping Beauty” (that other theatrical piece which eventually got the Disney cartoon treatment), but it still has a history far more extensive than one would have thought.

The earliest version of the Cinderella story dates back to 9thcentury China and has been retold countless times in cultures around the world. It’s first manifestation as a full-length story ballet appeared in London in 1822. The renowned choreographers Marius Petipa known for, among other works Sleeping Beautyand La Bayadere and Lev Ivanov, who, depending on whom you read shares choreographic credit with Petipa for The Nutcracker, created a new version of the work in 1893 for the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre Ballet (now known to the West as the Kirov Ballet).

Sergei Prokofiev, the great composer known for “Romeo & Juliet” and “Peter & the Wolf,” wrote the definitive score between 1941-1944 (heard in recording at the California Ballet performance) to which legendary director Frederick Ashton set his work on the Sadler-Wells Ballet (now The Birmingham Royal Ballet) as a comic ballet.The work premiered in 1948 and to put this in perspective, the Disney film was not released until 1950.

Not that California Ballet seems to be particularly interested in these noble roots: the program is completely devoid of historical context which unfortunately might lead all those little girls, and their parents, to believe that this production is a mere illustration of the popular Disney film rather than part of a lineage of centuries-old fairy tales set to music and placeden pointe.

California Ballet’s version felt like it could be a direct descendent of Ashton’s work, employing similar conventions, such as the Ugly Step-Sisters portrayed by men (of which Ashton himself was one). Richard Bulda and Oscar Burciaga hammed it up in drag as the two jealous and clumsy sisters, providing consistent comic relief and an abundance of silliness. Cinderella was elegantly portrayed by Cassandra Lund, handling both the pantomime and dancing with ease and grace. Andrei Jouravlev was less convincing as Prince Charming – while Lund managed to use to her solos to express her character’s thoughts, feelings, and desires, Jouravlev’s dancing felt like just that, rather than a glimpse inside the Prince’s emotions or intentions.

I doubt the majority of the young audience noticed, though. The excitement of the crowd was palpable. I can’t remember the last time a theater erupted in cheers as the lights dimmed on the first act. During the two intermissions, a virtual corps de ballet of prima ballerinas-to-be twirled and leapt through the aisles, reenacting the scenes just viewed on stage.

As story ballets go, California Ballet delivers the essential elements – big sets, sparkling costumes, and a happy ending – though a real improvement would be the addition of live music to enhance the beautiful score. The company presents a fairly traditional approach to the staging, so don’t expect any choreographic or thematic surprises or multi-layers of meaning. But then again, they may just know their target audience all too well. After all, a thousand little girls can’t be wrong.