“Cinderella” at American Ballet Theatre and Macaulay at the Times

GO. Or not. I’m not quite sure what to advise about James Kudelka’s “Cinderella” at ABT. (But you only have through Saturday to decide.) Last year, I loved the modern take on the story but was underwhelmed by the steps. This year, I was enchanted from the second act on–enough to forgive the sloppy beginning and Kudelka’s idea of the point shoe as super-high heel.
The duets between Cinderella and the prince (on Monday, Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes) make you want to run out and fall in love. Their directness and playfulness, their back and forth –the prince wafting his arm over Cinderella’s head like he were smoothing the air for love, she swivelling antsily on her pointes, then pirouetting in final release, and he responding with a soft shoe, all to a tendril of melody– remind me of Clara and the Nutcracker finally dancing together in Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut.”
Kudelka’s grounded style is great for the Prokofiev score, which is out of step not only with the Cinderella fairytale–in fact, with any fairytale, given how a folk tale separates black from white–but also with the idealizing world of ballet. The Soviet composer has a blossom of hope bloom inside imprisoning circumstances: a psychologically dense picture that distrusts social nicety and wouldn’t conform very neatly to a strictly classical language. Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan also understood that in his “Romeo and Juliet,” to a similar Prokofiev score.
I didn’t have room to go into all this, of course, but anyway here’s the review. (What a weird headline; I think it’s just a working one. The print version will be something else. Also, I have started a column of links to recent Newsday pieces down on the right.)
Chief Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay has a different take.
Since I made a stink in February about his appointment, which began in April, I thought I ought to say how I think Macaulay is doing. It may seem presumptuous to weigh in on other critics, but he’s not just any other critic. He’s the top critic at the Times. You write for Newsday, and you are not going to change the way people think about dance–or that they think about dance, even for an instant. You write as number two or three at the Times, and you’re not accorded that kind of authority either, though close. The Times dance chief is unique in his power to arouse people’s interest in dance. For the sake of the artform’s survival, he needs to do a very fine job. So far, Macaulay has come closer than any other chief in memory, but no gold ring.
Some things that bother me: his whole-hog pronouncements about dancers and choreographers, such as:

Mr. Kudelka is just not a dance maker of any distinction.

The man finished off in a single sentence.
And somewhat more qualifiedly on ballerina Julie Kent:

Julie Kent can be an intelligent, sensitive artist… She does not, however, have the dramatic authority to shape a full-evening role like Cinderella into a major dramatic arc.

The limited space that dance writers are allotted–even the top critic in the country–tends to erase nuance. Still, it’s one thing to characterize broadly and quite another to pass judgment on a dancer’s or choreographer’s entire worth as an artist.
Also, I wish Macaulay would avoid sarcasm and mimicry:

At the ball, despite arriving dressed like a glamour puss, Cinderella keeps melting in the glow of so much excitement, doting on the handsomeness and strength of her prince. She’s all “oh gosh, oh golly.”

And in an otherwise interesting review of “Swan Lake,” he describes Irina Dvorovenko’s face as “marred by her forever negotiating different angles of her chin.”
There’s a way to be funny and critical without making your subject look foolish and vain.
Macaulay’s mockery and his tendency to harp on the faults he perceives in certain dancers until they probably can’t get out of bed in the morning must be why James Wolcott, proud worshipper of ABT soloist Veronika Part, called him “pissy.”
I am ambivalent about Part: I saw her deliver a sublime “Mozartiana” a couple of years ago, but often find her labored. The girl needs to do something about her weak ankles! Combined with incredible arches, they can make her move like sludge. But how many times must Macaulay call her boring? When he shames dancers and choreographers, it has the effect of mocking the readers who feel differently than he.
Most of all, I’m disappointed in how retrograde he is. In rejecting the three freelancers for the job, the Times went back to an old model. Until Macaulay came on, the idea seemed to be to bring in fresh blood, a contemporary perspective, and evocative writing. Then the Times decided that, no, they wanted authority and long experience. The regrettable fuzziness in my own earlier arguments–my first saying, hire the freelancers, and then, why didn’t they hire a woman with more experience to lead the freelancers?–comes out of that bait and switch.
It would have been silly to claim that Claudia La Rocco, Gia Kourlas, and even the most experienced, Roslyn Sulcas, had as much experience as Macaulay. They had enough experience, however, that other valuable qualities emerged: breadth, the capacity to talk cogently and appealingly to a lay audience, and a thorough knowledge of a local scene that has international ramifications. The Times suddenly decided these virtues didn’t matter: a mean trick.
Still, Macaulay might have surprised us by not fitting the old-fart bill. I’m relieved he’s not blind as a bat and sawdust-dry, as was Anna Kisselgoff, or simply too ill-versed in dance to know what to look for, as John Rockwell was, but he too sticks doggedly to what he knows–and so far it’s proven a narrow range.
He sets up categories for himself that prevent him from seeing when a work is moving between categories. Many New York critics do this, but given that the Times felt it was worth stepping over the freelancers for him, I was hoping for better. I was hoping he would be curious.
To return to “Cinderella,” I think the useful comparisons are not to Ashton or other balletmakers but to modern-dance choreographers, such as Matthew Bourne and Mark Morris, who have made the old stories speak to a modern sensibility.
Kudelka may not be up to their level, but they too can seem on first viewing to be doing little with the steps. They certainly have been accused of this: Morris with the “Sylvia” he created for San Francisco Ballet (which also features awkward point work) and Bourne with just about everything. I think it’s exciting that American Ballet Theatre would venture in the modern-redo direction, as San Francisco Ballet has done, even if this particular ballet has its flaws. (I think they’re fixable.)
So far, Macaulay has been meeting attempts to push against the established boundaries–to have any fun with the classics, for example–with a wave of the hand and a pulling of rank. For his review of ABT’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” he listed all the borrowings from earlier versions to no apparent end except to show that he’d seen them. As he hasn’t much ventured into other worlds–tap, flamenco, even much modern–he’s using ballet to make his case as a critic. (That choice does not go without saying–so why is he saying it?)
Please, Mr. Macaulay, a more expansive case.
Macaulay has the education, the smarts, the aesthetic sensitivities to do a fine job. All he needs is a little humility and generosity–toward both the artists and us readers.
UPDATE: My fellow blogger Tonya Plank has a very interesting response to this post, as well as her own take on “Cinderella.”
(It occurs to me I should clarify one thing: I am on a first name basis and often friendly with most of the writers I mention here. [Tonya and I have even gone to shows together.] Critics tend to all sit in the same section of the theater, so it would be hard not to be. But I refer to people more formally–by last name– to indicate that they have not endorsed what I say–in many cases, they are probably dying for me to shut up–and it’s not their person but their writing I’m interested in. I understand I’m a fool for imagining I can maintain that distinction, but this blog isn’t called “Foot in Mouth” for nothing.)

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