Dance of the dolls 

Imagine being a child again and staring at a shelf filled with well-loved Victorian dolls. Then, inexplicably, you see them come to life before your eyes. The tiny unnatural scene would be unsettling and wonderfully miraculous at the same time. Such is Cendrillon (Cinderella), the contemporary ballet choreographed by Maguy Marin, performed by France’s Lyon Opera Ballet this weekend at Ann Arbor’s Power Center for the Performing Arts.

You all know the story, but you’ve never seen it like this. Professional ballet dancers vanish inside a masquerade of bulbous foreheads, full-rounded cheeks, enormous dead-to-life eyes and padded torsos telling a wordless tale (a la the Brothers Quay) to Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic ballet score. Since it’s impossible to look to the face for direction, limbs, posture, fingers and body-attitude become the storytellers as a troupe of antique dolls communicates through pantomime.

Aside from her flaxen hair, Cinderella is sexless, padded like a doll undressed, and steps rhythmically like a young girl discovering all the possibilities of movement within her own body. Her stepsisters and stepmother are outwardly grotesque, with similar but much harsher masks and heavily padded hips, and have movements to match with arms crossed and full-body frowns.

When she’s left alone, lamenting her cruel fate, Cinderella watches a deflated rag doll writhe and undulate on the floor to the sound of infant gurgles and giggles. From this primal-human-amniotic disorder emerges a bald head with blinking lights — until, standing to its full height, the figure is revealed as an arched-back, stiff-limbed, outer space-soldier-fairy godmother with rows of twinkling lights. To assist in preparing Cinderella for the ball, the fairy spacemother calls in her helpers who look as if they’ve just stepped out of an Oskar Schlemmer ballet, with geometrically inspired outfits designed to disguise the identity of the body underneath. The surreal costuming both obscures adult forms and helps to distance the dancers from conventional ballet movement, allowing Marin to display her extraordinary choreography skills.

It takes the ability and precision of professional ballet dancers to combine the movements of little children dancing with the perfect “awkward” timing of clowns, with meaning expressed through each manipulated muscle. When Cinderella gets her new, sparkly ballet slippers, she has trouble putting them on and walking in them, just as a child would. She wobbles like a jointed rag doll when the helpers, in their fuchsia, horizontal, potato chip-like skirts and flying-saucer hats to match, teach her to dance and twirl like a girl.

At the ball, Prokofiev’s music seems to be custom-made for the contrasting atmosphere, as hope and adversity twist each other around. An equally grotesque menagerie surrounds the handsome Prince, as if he were trapped inside a James Ensor-distorted Mardi Gras, all cracked masks and stiff, plastered hair, dancing to a dark carnival waltz that embodies both ominous wonder and fear. Cinderella lifts one shoulder, then the other, steps forward but twists her foot in hesitation, eventually surrendering herself to the arms of the Prince. She doesn’t dance to look delicate or to appear as if she’s defying gravity, but to suggest an awkwardness and beauty at the same time.

Like well-executed puppetry, Marin’s Cendrillon is disquieting by exhibiting the likes of inanimate objects moved by an unseen force. But by simply removing the childlike fear of the unknown and letting a toy box come to life with dolls dancing by themselves, “disquieting” easily transforms into magic, into a strange, fantastic, bizarre and astonishing experience not to be missed.

Performances are this Friday (8 p.m.), Saturday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (3 p.m.) at Power Center for the Performing Arts., 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. Call 734-764-2538.

Anita Schmaltz writes about performance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at

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