Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
This evening marks the first outing of the English National Ballet’s touring production of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella: originally created for the Dutch National Ballet and performed by the San Francisco Ballet before making its way to the English National Ballet’s repertoire.
One of the most performed classical ballets (and the most performed pantomime) there have been many versions of Cinderella. Wheeldon’s leans inevitably-heavily on the probably best-known Charles Perrault’s fairy tale version Cendrillon (1697) but also draws from the darker Grimm version. Wheeldon’s version sees changes to the more familiar narrative principally in the Prologue and Act I. Gone is the fairy godmother, the pumpkin and magical mice: instead Cinderella’s wellbeing is supported and nurtured by Four Fates and the spirits of a tree that has sprouted from Cinderella’s tears at her mother’s graveside.
Instead of the Prince appearing first at the ball and being transfixed by Cinderella at first sight, Wheeldon introduces Prince Guillaume first as a boy prince, alongside his lifelong friend Benjamin, the valet’s son: inseparable, mischievous, unimpressed with the future kingship that awaits him. As an adult, something of a Jack the Lad, Guillaume is resistant to his parent’s gentle pressure to enter into a dynastic marriage and the pair treat the invitations to a grand ball to introduce potential suitors as a game, swapping identities and hand-delivering the invitations: which brings the pair to Cinderella’s family home. Cinderella has, of course, lost her mother young and now lives effectively as a servant, unfavoured by her father’s vain and spiteful second wife and two daughters. But Wheeldon elects to give Cinderella some agency in her station: her role of servitude one of almost defiance in the face of this unwelcome new family and her father’s weakness.
Instead of Cinderella’s innate kindness and decency being demonstrated (and rewarded) by an act of a kindness to a crone she gives food and warmth to at the kitchen hearth, it is Prince Guillaume (Joseph Caley) in disguise as a beggar who discovers the gentle, quiet beauty of this young woman; while Benjamin – disguised as the Prince – fends off the ill-judged attentions of the stepmother Hortensia (Tamara Rojo) and her daughters, Edwina and Clementine. Invitations are distributed but Cinderella’s is wafted vindictively in her face by Hortensia before being thrown into the kitchen fire. The family duly head off to the ball leaving Cinderella at the fate of the Four Fates.
This Act is efficiently played out but the large number of scenes – seven – and locations necessitates a considerable amount of distracting scene changes as walls, windows, tables and fireplaces and trees are swept or dropped in and wheeled out again. This makes it difficult to latch on to who Cinderella really is – especially as she is so often ushered and supported by the ninja-ish Four Fates: strongly performed by four of the company’s strongest First Soloists, masked. And is it necessary to know so much about the Prince and Benjamin – roles which now somehow echo Romeo and Mercutio and the prince in Swan Lake? There is also the niggling structural problem: he has already met and started to fall in love with Cinderella. However, the act ends strongly as the colourful spirits of the tree prepare and transform Cinderella for the ball and a carriage is dramatically conjured and whisks her away, masked and in gold, to her fate.
Act II – the ball – however is tremendous. The staging, choreography, costumes and strong performances combine to effortlessly weave a heady tapestry of detailed narrative and well-judged comedy. Caley grows in stature and likeability and Cinderella – whose arrival ushered in by the Fates sees her float ethereally into the ballroom – properly takes centre stage, allowing Erina Takahashi to demonstrate the full extent of her precise and delicate footwork and carriage, and simple virtue. Her duets with Caley are an escalatingly-tender series of exchanges that discreetly reveal considerable technical innovation married with a delicacy of touch. Hortensia and the sisters reveal their true natures with delightful and well-judged comedy: Edwina (a snappish and demanding Alison McWhinney) and Clementine (an appealingly-gawkish Katja Khaniukova) increasingly lay bare the difference in their nature and intention. The ending as midnight arrives creates an impressive whirlwind of excitement through movement and light and Cinderella is gone.
The final act combines intelligent use of comedy and simplicity: creating a line of chairs that leads via seemingly every foot in the kingdom from the palace to Cinderella’s hearth, where she is reunited with the man redeemed by love: and there is love also for Benjamin (the charismatic Jeffrey Cirio) and Clementine. Hortensia is left with a hangover and one remaining problem daughter. The wedding scene beneath Cinderella’s tree is a pleasing climax to what has become a rather enjoyable and satisfying production. Which is why Cinderellapersists: it’s silly and funny and straightforwardly-romantic and that is what is sometimes required.
This production has elements of modernity in its choreography and staging but remains a deeply traditional version set in a lavishly-costumed otherworld somewhere between the 17th and 19th centuries, which is fine: but one can’t help considering that this is the company that commissioned Akram Khan to completely and thrillingly innovate Giselle; and there is a niggling question whether being safe is the safest thing to do in uncertain times. As the English National Ballet celebrate their 70th anniversary – despite the freshness of this vivid production – is this bread-and-butter British ballet actually a bit stale? Perhaps Artistic Director Tamara Rojo is right to juggle daring and striking modern works with such money-in-the-bank touring shows. It’s a debate.
Runs until 19 October 2019