Review: Australian Ballet - Cinderella - London Coliseum

Performance: 20 - 23 July 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 22 July 2016

Australian Ballet's Leanne Stojmenov as Cinderella. Photo Jeff Busby

Performance reviewed: 20 July

So good, he made it twice. The first full-length ballet ever choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky was Cinderella for the Mariinsky Ballet, back in 2002; in 2013 he returned to one of the best-loved fairy stories and (perhaps, more importantly) Sergei Prokofiev’s enticing score, to create this new interpretation for Australian Ballet.

Ratmansky’s earlier attempt is a mix of slapstick humour and pathos in a modern setting; his later version also updates the story to a surreal place, which, although supposedly located in post-war Russia, looks nothing at all like it. This former director of the Bolshoi Ballet, now given the freedom to roam as artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre is a choreographer with an eye on history. While at the Bolshoi, together with Yuri Burlaka, he created a production of Le Corsaire that restored as much of the original 1899 ballet’s authenticity as was possible after a century had elapsed since its creation; and also breathed new life into Vasily Vainonen’s Flames of Paris (later, more authentically restored for the Mikhailovsky Ballet, by Mikhail Messerer).

In Australia, Ratmansky returned to Nikolai Volkov’s original libretto for the first ballet that used Prokofiev’s score (in 1945) to resurrect and update certain concepts in his new interpretation. Thus, the Prince who ‘…dashes into the ballroom like a whirlwind, seating himself on the throne like a horseman in the saddle’ becomes a playboy who we first see launched into the ballroom with a breathtaking sequence of travelling jumps, wearing a white evening jacket that could have been stolen from Liberace. And, Ratmansky also recycles the original names for the stepsisters (Skinny and Dumpy) who, by the way, are neither ugly nor particularly mean. In today’s urban jargon, the stepmother is a cougar who understandably thinks she has the right to her own crack at the Prince.

There is much to admire in Jérôme Kaplan’s set and costume designs, inspired by ’30s surrealism and ’40s glamour. He captures a slightly down-at-heel, bohemian feel for the Cinderella homestead with its copy of Dali’s lip-shaped sofa in homage to Mae West and a footstool shaped into female legs and feet. This contrasts sharply with the elegance and depth that Kaplan establishes for the ballroom and the palace gardens (where love also blossoms, as Cinders and the Prince finally escape the ballroom throng). Surrealism also makes an appearance here in the form of grass-covered metronomes inspired by the image of Man Ray’s Indestructible Object, which hasten Cinderella’s midnight flight. Perhaps, best of all is the appearance of the Fairy Godmother (Jasmine Durham) as Mary Poppins with Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose, topped off by the surrealist accessory of Magritte’s bowler hat.

The downside is that the fairy-tale magic is lost somewhere in this concept. Cinderella’s transition from put-upon, plain and dowdy scullery girl to the mysterious beauty that is transported to the ball is so indistinct as to be hardly noticeable in amongst all the dancing “planets” who somehow make it happen. It is also a slightly odd (but perhaps, authentically surreal) concept that every woman at the ball is wearing trousers and when Cinderella arrives in her “New Look” Dior-inspired ball gown, they all rush off to change into dresses. Where? Is there perhaps an on-demand, in-house couturier at the palace?

An aspect of Cinderella that is rarely given proper attention is the Prince’s round-the-world quest to find the girl who fits the glass slipper. It’s all there in Prokofiev’s score: the Prince’s three “Galops”; his visit to the Orient; and the temptations he finds along the way. The inference is that this all takes a very long time but often the dénouement from the strike of midnight at the ball to the slipper fitting is so peremptory that it seems hardly worth the extra act. In giving proper attention to the search for Cinderella as part of his authentic approach to the initial libretto and score, Ratmansky gives the story depth and a certain realism. Unfortunately, the backdrop projections of cartoonish ocean liners and what appears to be a camouflaged ring spinning endlessly on its axis are a little too naïve and dated for this digital age.

The dancers of the Australian Ballet are a delight. They are universally light and airy; technically strong; lyrically expressive; and apparently inexhaustible. Leanne Stojmenov is a delightful Cinderella, affecting just the right balance between the shy scullery girl with dreams and the celebrity A-lister whose arrival at the ball drives every other woman to run off and change! She bears a remarkable similarity (physically, facially and in the elegant lightness of her dancing) to The Royal Ballet’s Laura Morera. Kevin Jackson gives playboy pizzazz to the Prince, bounding onto the stage like a rodeo steer on amphetamines: his scenes with Stojmenov were tenderly romantic; and his temporary enticement by the two lead temptors on his travels (Vivienne Wong and Jacob Sofer) was an amusing interlude.

Amy Harris was unnervingly ravishing as the stepmother – gorgeous in various shades of plum – and in so many ways she seemed the perfect woman for the number one playboy in the land. Ratmansky opted for a ’30s/‘40s style and if this were Britain, not some surrealist hotchpotch on a Russian theme, this stepmother could have been Mrs Simpson playing up to a naughty Prince of Wales!

I thought it to be a modern conceit to feel empathy for the stepsisters but it seems that this emotion was inherent to Volkov’s initial libretto. They’re not bad, just a bit whacky and mischievous with a mutual surreal clothes sense and bizarre hairdos. As Skinny, Ingrid Gow has something akin to the leaning tower of Pisa on her head and a penchant for pulling up her skirts to reveal turquoise cami-knickers; and Dumpy (Eloise Fryer) is a would-be pugilist in pink. They come on like kung-fu fighters and these two could probably represent Australia in the Olympic boxing ring. The key point being that their real aggression is aimed at each other and, as the father of two girls myself, it’s a nuance that rings so true!

My final comment is to pay tribute to the Orchestra of English National Opera conducted here by Australian Ballet’s Music Director, Nicolette Fraillon, who brought out so much clarity and richness in Prokofiev’s score. It’s rare to see audience members give a standing ovation specifically to the orchestra and this accolade was well deserved.

I came expecting to see perhaps a radical rewrite of Ratmansky’s original choreography from a decade earlier. But, instead here was a surprisingly fresh look at this well-worn story, even if it was largely inspired by a libretto from seventy years’ ago.

Continues until 23 July

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Main photo: Leanne Stojmenov as Cinderella – by Jeff Busby

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