Once upon a time in the distant history of fanciful stagecraft, certain wizards devoted their lives to making puppets resemble people.
Now, Lyons, France, sends us Maguy Marin--a dance-oriented wizard who wants to make people resemble puppets. Ah, the irony of progress.
As a guest choreographer with the Lyons Opera Ballet, she has retold "Cinderella"--"Cendrillon," if you will--as a human dance drama in which all the participants impersonate dolls.
It sounds like innocent merriment. Forget about innocent merriment. This isn't "Babes in Toyland."
There was nothing cute, nothing cloying, nothing kitschy about the "Cinderella" offered Tuesday at the temporarily revamped Raleigh sound stage in Hollywood. The dauntlessly enthusiastic audience, uncomfortably perched on drastically raked bleachers, saw a thoughtful, decidedly modern, bitter-edged reinterpretation of the old fairy-tale ballet.
The indomitable sweetness and prettiness of yore had given way to bleak Expressionism. A smudge of charm has survived, to be sure, but Marin and her inspired dancers have filtered their carefree let's-pretend adventure through an aura of tough alienation.
The participants all wear masks. They don't just look like dolls. They look like old, slightly battered dolls.
In this context, they must act exclusively with their bodies, and with their props. The Lyons troupe does just that, marvelously.
An odd thing happens, however, during the curtain calls. Here, the dancers are finally permitted to uncover their faces. Surprise: they have beautiful, expressive, individualistic, lively features. The sudden flash of humanity is blinding.
During the 90 uninterrupted minutes of the ballet, however, Cinderella (Jocelyne Mocogni) must remain a tiny, child-like waif, mechanically winsome and eternally victimized. As such, she functions as the ultimate, tippy-toed incarnation of Pitiful Pearl.
Even though she gets to cover her pink tights at the ball with a skeletal tutu studded with flashing lights, she remains the same fragile doll from start to finish. It may be significant that her greatest plea for sympathy comes when she must bump down a flight of stairs on her unpadded derriere. There is no room here for glamour, for character development or for dreamy transformations.
Her fairy godmother (Anne Sylvie Gaches) appears initially as a gigantic rag doll in a tattered trunk. Marin does give us a little old-fashioned magic, here and there. Eventually, the helpful spirit becomes an androgynous master/mistress-of-ceremonies, with lights flashing on his/her tights and a battery-lit baton in his/her hand.
The prince (Bernard Cauchard) is a baby-blue boy with baby-blue hair who rides a carrousel horse and sports flashing lights in his crown. On his travels, the innocent cavalier encounters, among other beguiling distractions, a spiffy Spanish vamp (Valerie Lacognata) and a blissful belly-dancer (Dominique Laine). Both caricatures prove oddly resistible.
Doubling the parodistic whammy, Marin allows her toy protagonists to play with toys of their own. At the final curtain, the prince leads on his princess. She is tugging an endless train of tiny baby dolls across the stage apron. The image serves as a lovely, cheeky, climactic coup de theatre.
The ugly sisters (Daniele Pater and Jayne Plasted), abetted by a matching stepmother (Chantal Requena), are ugly indeed. Stumpy little grotesques, they stalk the would-be hero when they aren't menacing the mock-heroine.
Monique Luyton has designed the always slightly macabre masks that freeze the faces. Montserat Casanova built the ingenious, three-tiered doll house that accommodates the bizarre, often contrapuntal action.
Marin has devised witty choreography that subtly fuses bright clown routines, broad pantomime and snatches of classical-ballet devices recycled for satirical effect.
The stagecraft is stylish, inventive, uncompromising, brilliant. Someday, perhaps, it will be aligned to appropriate music. For this mod exercise, alas, Marin has raped and trivialized the conventional, bittersweet romanticism of Prokofiev.
The score is grand, melancholic, passionate, serious to a fault. It deals in genuine, full-throated, Soviet emotions. The love music soars with ethereal lyricism. The conflict music is heroic, oppressive where appropriate, potentially tragic.
Marin's cool, calculated, anti-sentimental doll-maneuvers contradict Prokofiev at every turn. One can accept the cuts and splices mandated by this slick new version. But it is hard to accept the expressive clashes.
It is even harder to accept the periodic interpolations of trendy electronic gurgles and baby-babbles created by Jean Schwartz. Jolting anachronisms can exert a provocative appeal under the right conditions. But this isn't just ridiculous--it is painful.
The sound track, blasted much too loudly via loudspeakers, is credited to the Lyons Opera orchestra under one Yakov Kreisberg. If the attribution is indeed accurate (one has learned to cultivate a certain skepticism in such matters), this French-provincial theater must command a conductor and instrumental ensemble to rank with the international elite.