ALBANY — For more than a decade, New York Theatre Ballet has made an annual jaunt to The Egg to entertain children with condensed versions of classical ballets.
And while many of the productions are repeats, as was Sunday’s “Cinderella,” the NYTB classics are now looking smarter than ever, mainly because the chamber group of a dozen dancers has matured. In earlier years, dancers such as Mitchell Kilby, Steven Melendez and Elena Zahlmann performed capably, but without the weight to make them believable. But in recent visits, they, along with Rie Ogura, have artistically blossomed. When Melendez, as the Prince, first spots Zahlmann, as the tender Cinderella, the spark between the two reads to the back of the house. They are not acting, they are becoming.
Needless to say, this makes for a much more enjoyable experience for the adults who lead gaggles of adorable little girls to these showings. Finally, they too can be transported, albeit briefly, by the romance of a fairy tale.
This reduction of the Prokofiev ballet is one of NYTB’s jewels, too. The sets and costumes are simple, but lovely. Panels painted as starry skies glide along the stage, setting the scene for the magic to follow. The skies pull apart to enter Cinderella’s cottage where the poor orphan cradles a painting of her mother. They swirl around too before Cinderella is approached by her gracious Fairy Godmother (Ogura) and then again as a portal to the palace.
The costumes, in purple and pinks, shimmer. But Zahlmann, even in her plain housedress and head scarf, charms right from the start. She hangs in the air, en arabesque, as if she is longing for something better. Her lightness adds to her undeniable innocence. It also inspires the audience’s sympathy for her unfortunate plight.
Of course, Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” is as much a comedy as it is a love story. The rotten Stepsisters, danced in drag by Isaac Dayley and Peter Mill, stomp and blunder about the stage in a slapstick routine. A persnickety Kilby, as their reluctant dance instructor, is helpless to cultivate grace in this clumsy pair.
The dithering Major Domo, danced by veteran Dan Renkin, generates the most smiles as he bounces and wipes his brow as he attempts to keep pace with the dashing Prince. And indeed, the Prince is dashing thanks to Melendez who has developed into a fine dancer. (Just months ago, I saw him depict the troubled Moor in Jose Limon’s signature “The Moor’s Pavane” with moving depth and passion.) At first, he looks awkward with the Stepsisters who paw and pull at him. But in his pas de deux with Zahlmann, one can see Melendez at his best. Tender, but with zeal, he literally sweeps the delicate Cinderella off of her feet. Their love, as witnessed by their performance, is true.
The only thing missing from this slimmed down “Cinderella” is the elaborate wedding finale. But it is not that much of a loss as the two lovers end the show, arm-in-arm, her head nestled on her prince’s shoulder. How perfect is that?