Humor proved overwhelming for Richmond Ballet's 'Cinderella'

One of the things I most anticipate when it comes to arts coverage is the Richmond Ballet. Only a short drive from here, it’s a chance to see first-class dance of all types performed by a fully professional company — a company that can offer dance delight that’s competitive with that found in many major venues.

Following its 35th anniversary as a professional company celebration event, a Studio One offering that featured a stunning “Requiem,” and its annual “Nutcracker,” Richmond’s season continued with “Cinderella,” set to Prokofiev‘s score and crafted by Malcolm Burn, Richmond‘s Ballet Master and Artistic Associate.

With dreary, snowy-ish weather leading into Saturday’s matinee in the Carpenter Theatre, it seemed to be the perfect way to bring artistic sunshine to the day.

In ways it was and in ways it wasn’t.

Important things first: the company was expectedly on its toes, literally and figuratively, delivering concisely carried out choreography that caught the score’s spirit. And, under Resident Conductor Erin Freeman’s hand, the richness and humor of Prokofiev’s sophisticated score was expertly delivered by the Richmond Symphony, allowing a fine merger of music and movement.

As for this “Cinderella,” it was the basic fairy tale come to life in delightful dance that renders portions to comic lightness or comedy, the latter causing an issue here. Program notes said that Burn, who, for 25 years, danced with major international companies, essayed many versions of the ballet before starting his own.

Having danced in four versions of it, Burn chose to imbue his creative choreography with large amounts of comedy which, over the course, became excessive. If his effort was aimed at kids, it succeeded, drawing constant laughter and joyful exclamations, not to mention, in my vicinity, endless chatter from unsupervised little ones. Ultimately, using silliness for laughs bumped up against the dance and created non-dance moments that drew out scenes way too long, by way of one example, a slow-motion bit with the violinist, which encouraged and got more giggly reactions.

For adults interested in focusing on the sweeping scope of the score’s beauty and its dance-focused delights, from my perspective (perhaps childish), it provided a challenge trying to focus on the dance while trying to block out excessive noise from nearby kids.

These things aside, for the moment, there were excellent aspects. Cody Beaton and Fernando Sabino were perfectly paired as Cinderella and the Prince, both exhibiting impressive solo and pas de deux work. Lauren Archer was an elegant Godmother, the Seasonal Fairies graceful, and the court folk stylish.

But then there was comedy. Granted “Cinderella” opens many moments for humor and here many were delightfully crafted and carried out. But more isn’t always better. A notable example was Matthew Frain’s “travesti” role as a clumsy stepsister, which was designed to draw laughs. It required pointe work (no easy feat for a male dancer's feet) and purposeful awkwardness. Bravo to him for pulling it off.

But, the antics went on and on, to the point of overindulgence. Similarly, much of the stage business given the other stepsister, finely danced by Elena Bello, became a distraction. Trevor Davis brought athletic jumps and splits and sense of fun as the Jester. But, like Frain and Bello, as etched characters go, the Jester tried too hard to be too clever, thus upsetting what should have been a better balanced blend of ingredients.

I wanted to leave the performance enthused but left weary attempting to balance choreographic beauty and banter brought about by comedy. At least the sun was out when the show was over.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for more than 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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