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The Joffrey Ballet


by Kathy Lee Scott

January 28, 2010 -- Music Center, Los Angeles, California

Artistic Director Ashley C. Wheater brought Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet to the  Music Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, for a five-day run of the fairy tale, "Cinderella." The Jan. 28 - 31, 2010 performances were the first time the company had appeared in the West Coast city since 1991.

Wheater presented Sir Frederick Ashton's version of the three-act story set to Serge Prokofiev's music, long a wish of company founder, Robert Joffrey. But Joffrey died before he could stage the three-act story ballet.

For this run, Wendy Ellis Somes staged the production.

Artistic Director Wheater followed the tradition of casting men as the stepsisters. In a colorblind casting, he gave David Gombert and Michael Smith the slapstick roles. Both revealed great comic timing.

The first part of Act I belonged to the two men, who squabbled and tussled over each and every thing coming to their attention. They pushed each other, pulled the other away from people and slapped each other's hands.

When the dancing master (Graham Maverick) arrived, he was almost overwhelmed by the two sisters, who vied for his attention throughout the lesson. The men in drag wove around Maverick, replacing or slapping each other behind his back. At one point, Maverick had to leap to grab Smith's hand, which he held high behind his body.

The stepsisters' bickering and fighting over items and people got tiresome after they made the point of how spoiled and selfish each was.

Smith had fun portraying the older stepsister, adding flamboyant gestures and postures. His height led to humorous situations, especially in the Act II ball scenes. The pair found suitors in the Napoleon (Brian Gephart) and Wellington (Fabrice Calmels) characters. Of course, the taller sister paired with the short Napoleon, although Smith tried to switch with Gombert several times.

Gephart exaggerated his diminutive Napoleonic stature by leaning back. Although a company member, his appearance led to the mistaken belief he was a young student.

Gombert personified a more subdued woman, overshadowed by her sister. When approached by possible courtiers at the ball, he dropped his fan in confusion and anxiety.

A funny sequence had Gombert dancing a solo but forgetting the steps. His character had to get reminders from the sister. Also, he tried to sit on Gephart's ("Napoleon") shoulder but kept getting it wrong, even pulling off Gephart's wig.

The pair often overshadowed the romantic lead danced by Victoria Jaiani.

She presented a sweet, uncomplaining Cinderella, who smiled while dusting and sweeping. Only when she looked at the portrait of her dead mother did she break into tears.

One quick revelation came when Cinderella made fun of her stepsisters after they had left for the ball. The ridicule showed her true feelings for them, although she tended to placate them to their faces.

April Daly performed the Fairy Godmother adequately but not memorably. She hobbled as a bent-over beggar before her transformation into the fairy. Right before she threw off her ragged outfit and wig, she kept to the dark, so it was difficult to see the change until she stepped onto pointe.

When Daly first came on as the beggar, the stepsisters pushed each other to greet her ("No, you tend to her"). Gombert's character fainted when the beggar lady turned her attention to the shyer sister. Cinderella sat the visitor down and offered her some bread. When Smith scolded the beggar, the older woman silenced her with a sharp gesture. The muteness startled the sister, who mimed that she can't speak. Since Smith portrayed the bossy sister, this was a definite hardship for the character.

In this version, the fairy godmother brings in other fairies representing the four seasons to dance for Cinderella. The  "stars," comprised of Joffrey's corps, accompanied them. Sometimes with everyone on stage, it seemed a bit crowded.

Most impressive of the four soloists was Allison Walsh, the spring fairy. She performed her petite allegro solo cleanly and briskly. The fairies Summer (Christine Rocas), Autumn (Yumelia Garcia) and Winter (Valerie Robin) each appeared behind a separate scrim that lifted to reveal her. Rocas' languid solo offered long, sweeping port de bras and quick changements. Garcia's Autumn included fast movements, while Robin's Winter gave her a bit of trouble on the relevé fouetté arabesques.

Ashton tended to choreograph opposites: when one dancer raised her arms up, another next to her pointed down, so the result was an up-and-down line. He also used an allongé look before having the dancers straighten to normal, erect postures.

Most energetic of all was Derrick Agnoletti as the Jester. He leaped, spun and whirled around the stage, astonishing audience members. But he tried too hard to be jolly and exuberant, attacking the moves with a ferociousness that startled his fellow dancers.

Agnoletti offered a one-note character, who always went for the biggest movement.

In this production, Cinderella's father (Patrick Simoniello) came across as weak and ineffectual with his stepdaughters. He also did few actual steps, serving mainly as a partner to Cinderella.

Miguel Angel Blanco as the Prince failed to match Jaiani's technique. During his Act II solo, his feet were sloppy, his leaps barely left the floor and his beats appeared almost nonexistent.

In contrast, Jaiani's petite jetés came far off the ground, as did her tour jeté into emboité. Her turns en menage were sharp.

One goof came when Cinderella ran across the stage after midnight. She had apparently left a shoe behind, but both feet were still clad in pointe shoes.

Costume designer David Walker gave the stepsisters outlandish outfits for the ball, including wigs with silly topknots.

He dressed Cinderella in a traditional tutu instead of a long gown, as all the other women (and stepsisters) wore during the ball scene. That different style definitely made her stand out from the crowd. Most eye-catching was the light-green cloak over her shoulders, a long tulle train with a circle collar of erect, leaf-like attachments.

Scott Speck conducted the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra with enthusiasm.

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