Royal Albert Hall, London
June 7, 2019
Actually, several notches. Not only is Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella one of the best tellings around, he has done a good job of adapting it to fit the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. The pas de deux do get lost a little in the huge arena, although less so that with most ballets there, but the ballroom scenes have been beefed up superbly, and other neat touches, such as a kitchen table that moves around, work well.
Just as the original designs are a visual feast, so they are here. What is missing is Basil Twist’s magical tree, brought forth by the tears the child Cinderella weeps at her mother’s grave and that comes to symbolise perfectly her spirit. Instead, a tree is conjured out of drapes that fall from above the orchestra at the back of the arena. But like the original, it billows nicely and actually works rather well. Twist’s puppet heads again work a treat too, and the way he conjures a carriage out of no more than four carriage wheels and four horses heads is a delight. The sight of Cincerella carried aloft, her train billowing behind her makes for a startling end to Act I.
Julian Crouch’s costumes are gorgeous; and one advantage of the Royal Albert Hall, at least for those sitting on the aisles downstairs, is that you get to see them super close up as the dancers make their entrances and exits. As if the blue ballgowns in Act II aren’t fine enough, the ivory white dresses and coats in the wedding scene are divine. Somewhat oddly, perhaps, but I found Cinderella’s simple blue dress the most appealing of all.
David Brodie has added to his projections, most cleverly making the orchestra appear as if they are on a palace ballroom balcony. Up to that point, and indeed for most of the evening, the musicians remain resolutely hidden.
Wheeldon turned to the original Brothers Grimm tale for the story, the result being a hint of darkness here and there (as all the best fairy tales have). He not only shows he understands Prokofiev’s music, but Cinderella’s story, and the need to set everything in context too. At the beginning, he not only shows us the death of Cinderella’s mother but also Prince Guillame as a child, and gives him a playful and best friend, Benjamin.
Small and just a tad vulnerable, Erina Takahashi was a perfect Cinderella, making the most of the quiet passages Wheeldon inserts in the choreography. She demanded you watch her right from the start, and in scenes alone we see her happy, free spirit is never far away. There was an immediate connection with Joseph Caley’s Prince Guillaume right from their first meeting in the kitchen, when he was dressed as a pauper. Caley was handsome, strong, and good-mannered. Together, their dance was always loaded with feeling, the highlight being the modest and beautifully understated Act III pas de deux after he has found her again. Full of tender lifts, its lack of flashy steps somehow makes it much more real and says more about feelings than any set of fouettés or grand pirouettes can ever do.
For the stepsisters, Wheeldon avoids pantomime dames and pantomime comedy (for which a thousand hurrahs). Instead we see two very different characters. Edwina, who one senses is the older one, is much the meaner, to her more timid sister Clementine as well as to Cinderella, between who there is just a hint of a bond. Alison McWhinney and Anjuli Hudson got both characters spot on. A suggestion that they could actually be real people works wonders. There’s another link as Benjamin, the boyishly good-looking Barry Drummond, finds himself falling for Clementine, making for a neat subplot.
Sarah Kundi as Stepmother Hortensia (with names like that you know they are not going to be nice!) was deliciously bossy. Her getting drunk at the ball and then hungover afterwards was a gem of acting.
Instead of a Fairy Godmother, Wheeldon conjures up four fates who are effectively seen only by the audience. In their dark harem trousers and gold painted faces, they pop up almost continuously, guiding our heroine to her dream Prince, wedding and happy ending.
A magical and beautifully reimagined version of the story.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella by English National Ballet continues at the Royal albert Hall to June 16, 2019. Visit www.royalalberthall.com for details and tickets.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes