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Genevieve Penn Nabity makes her debut as Cinderella in The National Ballet of Canada's production of James Kudelka's staging of Cinderella.Karolina Kuras/The National Ballet of Canada

  • Title: Cinderella
  • Staging by: James Kudelka
  • Company: National Ballet of Canada
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: March 10-19

Cinderella’s stepsisters stole everything but the heart of the prince at the opening of the National Ballet of Canada’s winter run of the classic fairy tale on Friday.

Tanya Howard and Brenna Flaherty ran away with show, the spotlight and the largest share of applause at the curtain call, which they took in character, cheekily insisting that even though the slipper didn’t fit, the ballet was still all about them.

Which, for better or worse, it was. At least at this performance.

For most of the past 100 years of ballet and opera, the most ungrateful siblings in fairy tale history have been played by men in drag. In 1948, English choreographer Frederick Ashton played one himself, with Moira Shearer (of Red Shoes fame) as the titular scullery maid. It was a crowd-pleasing gimmick, not necessarily a progressive development, yet Ashton’s choreography became the definitive version set to Prokofiev’s score. So it was something of a creative twist in 2004 when former artistic director James Kudelka created his Cinderella for the National Ballet, and gave the standout comic roles to two women.

Tanya Howard and Brenna Flaherty ran away with show as the stepsisters. From the left: Howard, Josh Hall, Flaherty and Jack Bertinshaw.Karolina Kuras/The National Ballet of Canada

Ideally, though, even in Kudelka’s version, the prince and princess should still earn top billing. Friday night they didn’t, in part because the leading man and his friends needed to revisit charm school. Corps dancer Larkin Miller made his debut as the prince, introducing himself to the audience with a couple of crooked double tour jumps. The quartet of officers who followed him around the castle and on his post-ball quest for Cinderella had some serious issues with both spacing and staying in sync. Bravo to principal dancer Genevieve Penn Nabity, making her debut as Cinderella, who beamed through it all, even after some crashy landings coming down through lifts marred both the pas de deux.

Given the outsized roles that Kudelka gave the stepsisters, it doesn’t take much to tip the magic away from the belle of the ball. Howard, a first soloist, announced last week that she will retire in June after 25 years with the company. She left it all on the dance floor, vamping across the stage as the imperious older sister who thinks she has better taste in fashion than her polka-dot housecoat would suggest. She’s arrogant, awkward and utterly lacking in self-awareness.

Kudelka’s choreography puts both sisters on pointe, striding across stage on the tips of their toes like overconfident stilt walkers. Flaherty has only been a second soloist since 2021 and may be two decades Howard’s junior, but the two were on the same plane dramatically, adding just the right dash of camp to their performances. “The other stepsister,” as she is identified in the program, is shy and nearsighted, often wobbling around in search of her spectacles. Their cocktail-guzzling mother (played on opening night by retired Royal Winnipeg star Evelyn Hart) knows her daughters aren’t princess material, and hires two quasi-closeted dance instructors (Josh Hall and Isaac Wright) to help them prepare for the ball.

For the better part of a decade, Hall was the top male partner at Charlotte Ballet, artistic director Hope Muir’s former company. As foil to Howard’s loopy stepsister, he gets a great chance to show Canadian audiences why. Kudelka’s tongue-in-cheek “bad” choreography is deceptively hard. One dance lesson ends with Hall tossing Howard aloft. She splays out in mid-air so he catches her by the thigh, saving a disastrous fish dive.

The average seven-year-old may ask: “Why do the stepsisters have boyfriends?” Good luck with that one, parents. This is not an ideal Cinderella for children, so parents should be prepared to explain why the fairy godmother is dressed like Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey and why Act I includes a dream sequence inspired by Japanese Bunraku puppets.

Penn Nabity dances in a scene with Evelyn Hart, portraying Cinderella's step mother.Karolina Kuras/The National Ballet of Canada

Actually, adults are going to wonder about that one, too. This Cinderella is set in the 1920s, a time period when dance companies were obsessed with Orientalist aesthetic. Henri Matisse, for example, designed sets and costumes for the 1920 Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, which was set in ancient China. If the National Ballet remounts Cinderella beyond 2023, then some of these Asian-inspired elements might be due for a rethink. Thorny cultural appropriation issues aside, David Boechler’s giant floral backdrops resemble faded Ikea curtains at this point. Kudelka’s 1995 Nutcracker for the National Ballet has held up much better.

Dance fans may also know that since Kudelka’s Cinderella premiered in 2004, two better adaptations have toured the world. Christopher Wheeldon’s magical co-commission for the San Francisco and Dutch National ballets, which premiered in 2012 with puppetry by Basil Twist, and Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, which toured prepandemic and set the fairy-tale action on the brink of the London Blitz. The only advantage the National Ballet has over both of those is the scene-stealing stepsisters and their pretend paramours.

To be fair, the company looked fabulous in its winter season opening program of mixed rep, including many of the company’s top men. So, if forced to choose one program to attend, skip the ball and see Anima Animus. The slipper will still fit when the program returns March 22-23.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)