You're the artistic director of one of the world's preeminent contemporary-ballet companies. You have stellar dancers, a cutting-edge repertory and production designs that conjure Cirque du Soleil. What would possess you to base a work on a 300-year-old fairy tale? For Jean-Christophe Maillot, of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the answer traces to the death of his father.
Maillot had worked closely with his father, a set designer for ballet and opera, and ever since his passing had felt his father's presence in each work he created. One day, he made the Cinderella connection.
"I tried to imagine Cinderella as it could relate to a human being," says Maillot, by phone from Monte Carlo. "That this story of a fairy godmother and magic might not be so far-fetched, and maybe could exist."
Under Maillot's direction, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo has become one of the world's most sought-after companies. Though it's no relation to the famous Ballet Russes de Monte-Carlo, it displays the latter's sense of innovation.
Maillot's Cinderella (first staged in 1999) little resembles the Disney version. Instead, it more closely follows Charles Perrault's original tale. Set to a modified version of Prokofiev's original score for Cinderella, and with a cast of 36, the two-hour ballet retains its sense of fairy-tale magic with a surprise ending and a set Maillot describes as "an empty book of memories." But it's a bit darker, and reinterprets certain characters, most notably by making Cinderella's birthmother and her fairy godmother one and the same.
"The story has more meaning because of her watching over Cinderella," says Monte-Carlo principal dancer April Ball, a Pittsburgh native who regularly dances the role of the fairy godmother, and who might well do so for the troupe's Pittsburgh Dance Council performances, Feb. 23 and 24 at the Benedum Center. (Casting was unavailable at press time.)
Maillot also gives Cinderella's father a larger role, and provides an unconventional take on Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters. "The sisters are always represented as grotesque-looking," says Maillot. "In Perrault's book, he describes them as three beautiful women who are ugly on the inside, as I do."
Perhaps the biggest change is that Cinderella remains barefoot throughout the ballet, suggesting her simple beauty. Instead of glass slippers, a visual effect makes her feet appear to sparkle and shine. Of course, without a lost slipper, Maillot's Prince is left to travel the world apparently indulging a foot fetish, asking to inspect women's feet for their shine.
As with La Belle, his 2001 adaptation of The Sleeping Beauty in which the protagonist is encased in a giant translucent ball, Maillot sees the story of Cinderella as a pretext for a more humanistic ballet version.
"Cinderella's is an impossible love, how a poor girl can one day meet a prince," he says. "Love, however, is at its most beautiful when something that is not supposed to happen, happens."
Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo presents Cinderella 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 23, and 2 p.m. Sun., Feb. 24. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $25.50-56.50. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org