Review: ‘Cinderella’ by English National Ballet

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English National Ballet’s Cinderella-in-the-round brings a unique yet slightly confusing take on the classic fairy tale we all know and love. Unlike the traditional version filled with pumpkins, mice and a bit of Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, this version, choreographed by

Christopher Wheeldon is inspired by the much darker Brothers Grimm version of the rags to riches story. So what happens when you try to take a story renowned for its light-hearted innocence and try to turn it into something more sombre? And is it suited for the grand in-the-round treatment?

Ballet’s own history reflects how a more dramatic style can still be equally as effective as an upbeat one. Some of the greatest ballets such as La Sylphide and Giselle have a really enchanting blend of tragedy and romance, depicting heart-breaking stories of dreams unrealised, love unrequited and sudden death after a tearful parting. Some elements of Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation match this dramatic tone to a T.

Not only have we got Prokofiev’s score, renowned for his bombastic style of composition, cogently played by the English National Ballet Philharmonic, but Alina Cojocaru’s light and flawless execution of Cinderella’s melancholic movements helps to engage viewers on an emotional level. She perfectly balances the feeling of being weighed down with pain and misery yet still with that weightless feel to her arabesques and fouettes.

Also, rather than having a fairy godmother appearing to save the day, the magical helper in this story is the spirit of a tree spawned out of the protagonist’s love and sorrow over her mother’s death. It is this spirit, manifested in all sorts of woodland creatures, that helps guide our heroine on her destiny to a happy-ever-after with the Prince. So out of pain spawns hope – an honest and sincere moral for audiences to take away from this performance.

With such a drawn out exposition of Cinderella’s tragic backstory, I was expecting the rest of the story to have a similar tone and style filled with heart-ache and passionate dancing.  What I didn’t expect was for the rest of the ballet to feel like a pantomime.

Audiences truly feel like they’re in a fairy-tale.

Although the deliberate wonky pirouettes and exaggerated movements from the silly, rather than ugly, Stepsisters (Emma Hawes and Katja Khaniukova) do muster a good few chuckles early on, repeating the same antic for the fifth time quickly becomes tiresome. And rather than being allowed to admire the elegant array of seasonal colours and earthly spirits during the corps’ formation, you’re too distracted by the sudden invasion of massive head puppets and bird people. A few times I’d wonder am I at a Blackpool Punch and Judy show?

Yet straight after such silly pantomime costumes, we are immediately struck by an ornate chandelier alongside the tall majestic scenery of the royal court. Despite such a jarring tonal jump, it is this ball scene where audiences truly feel like they’re in a fairy-tale. With all the invitees dancing in unison, staged in clear patterned formations, it’s clear Wheeldon has used this arena-like stage of the Royal Albert Hall to its fullest potential and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

The rest of the staging is either cluttered or at times seems out of place. To be fair, this might have more to do with the nature of the story rather than the choreography. Cinderella, in itself, is a very intimate story and aside from the grandeur of the ball, there aren’t many opportunities for the corps de ballet to make the most of the vast space around them. On top of that, the lack of props makes it seem like the dancers are about to be eaten up either by the remaining space or by those frightening head puppet monstrosities! It’s like the old saying goes, sometimes less is more and I believe this type of story with its more interior and compact settings would have been better suited to a smaller stage.

A ballet riddled with tonal inconsistencies.

What makes ENB’s Cinderella pull through though are the dancers. Jeffrey Cirio relishes every moment he’s on stage. He radiates charm and charisma in playing the encouraging best friend of the Prince whilst simultaneously effortlessly pulling off one series of jumps and turns after another. And Tamara Rojo’s less cruel and more drunken buffoonish portrayal of the Stepmother is so much fun. Whether it’s a big role or a small role, Rojo always manages to fully immerse herself in her role, putting tireless amounts of thought and energy into each movement and facial expression, never ceasing to bring a smile on our faces.

So what we have is a mixed bag. Wheeldon’s bold move with incorporating elements of the darker tale by the Brothers Grimm’s set up so much potential for a dramatic Giselle styled interpretation of Cinderella. However, his peculiar choice in repeated comedic turns left us with a ballet riddled with tonal inconsistencies. And whilst parts of the performance did make me admire some of the dancing and visuals, it was missing the genuine awe, wonder and mesmerising qualities that usually comes whilst watching a ballet.

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