Australian Cinderella fails to catch light

The Australian Ballet at the London Coliseum
July 20, 2016

Charlotte Kasner

The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella held out much promise following the terrific Swan Lake which has matured until it fits the company like a glove. Ratmansky usually pulls together exciting theatre with a nuanced sense of time and place. Cinderella is a tricky ballet though. The score is often criticised for not being Romeo and Juliet. It is certainly darker, the bitter-sweet waltz being a classic example, reflecting the fact that it was written during the terrible years of World War II when Prokofiev was evacuated to the Caucasus.

This darkness often causes problems for producers and choreographers alike. That said, it provides plenty of humour and even moments of delicacy which choreographers ignore at their peril. Ashton made his version a pantomime, complete with dame en travesti, thus disregarding the score completely. Nureyev set his in Hollywood in the 1930s, his Cinderella becoming a film star. The Mariinksy currently have a pared down production with a marvellously bonkers stepmother who bears more than a passing resemblance to Anna Wintour, the bleakness of the set echoing the underlying menace in the score. Matthew Bourne was spot on, setting his Cinderella in 1941 and basing it on an historical event, the bombing of the Café de Paris.

Ingrid Gow and Eloise Fryer of The Australian Ballet as the Stepsisters in Alexei Ratmansky's CinderellaPhoto Kate Longley
Ingrid Gow and Eloise Fryer of The Australian Ballet as the Stepsisters in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella
Photo Kate Longley

Ratmansky’s ballet is also set in the 1940s, but less obviously rooted in historical context. He also errs more towards the pantomimic with his stepmother and sisters. The original tale can be found across cultures, the oldest being from China and documented in 860 AD. After being translated into French by Perrault, and as befits their name, it was the brothers Grimm who introduced must nastier elements such as the sisters’ cutting off their heel and toe respectively in order to fit the golden slipper. Apart from a bit of pushing, the terrible trio have little contact with Ratmansky’s Cinderella though. Even when they destroy her treasured (giant) portrait of her mother, it is not vicious enough, more of an afterthought.

In fact, while the dancing was fine, the whole production fails to cross the footlights. The characterisation, such as it is, is half-hearted. Kevin Jackson’s prince is insipid and gave no hint that he lived a formal life in a palace and Leanne Stojmenov’s Cinderella colourless. They are not helped by Jerome Kaplan’s ghastly costumes. Why he decided to place all of his dancers in pyjama suits the first section in the ballroom is a mystery. It is weirdly androgynous and everyone seems to be wearing a suit that was a size too small. They look uncomfortable to dance in and are unflattering.

Suddenly, for no ostensible reason, the women change into dresses. Of course the stepmother and the sisters get this the wrong way round but there is no dramatic logic to any of it and it seems to be there simply to highlight their social inadequacy. Cinderella’s ballgown should be stunning. It seems adequate until the prince appears. Dressed in a tight glaringly white suit, he makes Cinderella look as if she has been rolling in the ashes from which she takes her name. Throughout their over-long, unexciting pas de deux, I wanted her to move away from him so that she wouldn’t dirty his jacket.

Leanne Stojmenov as CinderellaPhoto Jeff Busby
Leanne Stojmenov as Cinderella
Photo Jeff Busby

Kaplan’s set is more successful. His ballroom has more than a hint of the malachite room in the Hermitage and opens to reveal a mist-strewn formal garden as the clock creeps toward midnight. Dancers totter on, completely covered in pyramids of green to form the foliage. When the hour does chime, the reason for this becomes clear as they revolve to reveal that the obscured side is a giant metronome. Kaplan can be forgiven for using a device that has nothing to do with clock time as it is genuinely effective and the part of the evening that pulled me out of a mild doze.

There is much use of projection, some of which works, some of which is a bit naff. The projection of the clock as the hours leap out towards the audience is very clever. The projection of the boat, train and car as the prince travels far and wide seeking the owner of the abandoned shoe, less so. When Cinderella’s fairy godmother conjures up her magic, she summons the planets and stars. This is initially quite charming but their dances are interminable and, like the remainder of the choreography, presents little to tantalise the palate. The final pas de deux serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever and just sputters on and on until it dribbles to a halt. There is no sense that there is any kind of feeling between these dancers at all and no opportunity to build to any sort of climax with the dancing.

The orchestra were on better form than with Swan Lake and tempi were logical, although annoyingly, Ratmansky also chose to cut the quotation from Love of Three Oranges.

The Australian Ballet’s visit is long overdue and it was a wonderful opportunity to see Swan Lake again, but Cinderella, alas disappointed on all levels.