Artistic Director &Choreography: David Nixon
Music: Philip Feeney
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Cinderella is one of the great ballets in the classical canon, with one of the best scores. But the story of Cinderella goes back as far as 9th Century AD China. The best-known version is the Charles Perrault fairytale of 1697, and most ballet versions draw from this narrative, including the Marius Petipa version for the Mariinsky Ballet in 1893 and the first version to the Prokofiev score at the Bolshoi in 1945. Cinderella was the first full-length English ballet, choreographed by Frederick Ashton – also to the Prokofiev score – in 1948. The ballet has retained its popularity with a cluster of new productions this century. David Nixon, Artistic Director and chief choreographer for Northern Ballet created this production in late-2013 and this is its first national tour.
For this version, two things should be noted. Nixon has ditched the Prokofiev score in favour of a new one by Philip Feeney: a brave move. Secondly, this version, with a nod to the ballet’s heritage, is set in Imperial Russia. Feeney’s new score is melodic and not unmemorable – and played live by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it lacks Prokofiev’s dark drama and sense of unease and disorientation – it was written during WW2 – that has given Cinderella much of its potency. This interpretation of the story starts with Cinderella in happy childhood and details the tragic loss of her beloved father and how this finally gives her stepmother the justification to turn dislike and resentment into the callous degrading of Cinderella from beloved daughter to servant girl. The transition from rural summer idyll to a bleak new life in urban Moscow is dramatically pleasing. The moment Cinderella switches from child to woman in rags is neatly subtle.
This production and retelling is not without issues however. Cinderella, meant to be consigned to the kitchen with endless pans to clean, keeps popping out – first to the Winter Market and then to the crystal lake for some skating. Although she gets vaguely punished for these transgressions it does rather shatter the idea that she is effectively a prisoner in her own home. This also requires the kitchen set to be whizzed up and down an unseemly number of times. The market scene is lively and colourful, giving a second opportunity to encounter the prince and his friends and introducing the Magician, who will be the instrument of Cinderella’s transformation later. Cinderella’s stepsisters are hardly willingly complicit in her oppression either: although spoilt by their mother, Cinderella is often punished for their attempts to engage her in their adventures and games.
Supernatural elements are often central to the major ballets – otherworldliness and transformation for good or ill. Nixon has chosen to use more ‘conventional’ magic with the Magician than the supernatural intervention of the fairy world. But the act of kindness by Cinderella that results in her transformation is retained. Although it’s not entirely clear why a magician of such real power is eking out a living doing conjuring tricks in the Winter Market. The transformation scene itself is great fun but overloaded with flash and bang. The huskies to pull the sledge are magicked from the stepmother and daughters’ fur coats and are adorably cuddly, but the sledge itself is clunky and when the Magician paints the word ‘Cinders’ in lights along the side it all veers suddenly panto-wards.
But all these stories unravel if you pull too hard at the threads. The choreography is actually quite good and not without technical difficulty, especially Cinderella’s solo at the ball in Act 2. Tobias Batley is a good Prince Mikhail: his disdain for the parade of young women throwing themselves at him is nicely played. Although his acceptance of Cinderella in finery and rejection of her when he realises she is a servant is problematic, as is the fact that he has known her since childhood. No wonder Cinderella only finally accepts him with the intervention of the Magician. Martha Leebolt has elegance, nobility and sadness as Cinderella, although she is a little over-pleased to see the prince at the ball. The skating scene is nicely done, as is the dance of Prince Mikhail’s friends at the ball.
This Cinderella is fun and entertaining and not without merit, but the staging and narrative lacks authenticity and substance, and the dark psychological drama potentially inherent within the story, and despite a professed intention to steer clear of panto this Cinderella is not entirely successful at this.
Runsuntil 22 November