Badisches Staatsballett: Ruß – Eine Geschichte von Aschenputtel (Soot – A Retelling of Cinderella)

Staatstheater, Karlsruhe
December 13, 2022

I never thought I would see a take on Cinderella that left me feeling more for one of the stepsisters than for the usually downtrodden title character. But that’s precisely what happened with Badisches Staatsballett artistic director Bridget Briener’s Ruß – Eine Geschichte von Aschenputtel, an interpretation that leaves you reflecting on how one of the stepsisters was perhaps just as much a Cinderella as the title character.

Classic fairy tales tend to be rather straightforward affairs, mostly showing a clear difference between good and evil, even if they do reside in a reality far from our own. Briener’s reading of Cinderella is way more complex, relocating the story and telling it from the perspective of Livia, one of her stepsisters.

Most of the fairy-tale elements are ditched as she interweaves the two worlds of coal mining in the United States of the 1940s with that of the Ruhr, the ballet first being performed ten years ago in Gelsenkirchen in that region. Metal baskets that hang from the ceiling that were the predecessors of lockers, typical in Ruhr mines are an unusual feature of the stage design, while three mobile walls create rooms and backdrops.

Carolin Steitz as Clara and Louiz Rodrigues as her father
in Bridget Briener’s Ruß – Eine Geschichte von Aschenputtel
Photo Yan Revazov

Rather than using the familiar and very prescriptive Prokofiev, Briener turns to the relatively unknown but glorious tunes of Johann Strauss II’s score. Unusually, it comes mostly arranged for accordion by Marko Kassl, who played it live along with more music for the instrument by Austrian composer Klaus Paier. It is particularly effective in conveying the edginess and tenseness of feelings and scenes. Contributions from across the Atlantic include workers’ and protest songs by Woody Guthrie, Hazel Dickens and Sarah Ogan Gunning.

Briener spends time giving everyone a solid background, establishing character and showing in some detail how a man’s death changes everything for his well-heeled wife and two daughters, Livia and Sophia. Dropping down the social ladder, they move to a coal mining area where the mother finds a new partner. But he comes with a daughter, Clara, the ‘Cinderella’ of the tale.

Impressively portrayed by Désirée Ballantyne, the mother initially appears humble but we soon see just how controlling, strict and hard she is. Clara’s father (Louiz Rodrigues), while always supportive of his daughter, simply cannot compete.

Pablo Octávio as Mitch and Balkiya Zhanburchinova as Livia
in Ruß – Eine Geschichte von Aschenputtel
Photo Yan Revazov

Briener very cleverly differentiates the characters by footwear and movement, the latter blending effortlessly classical and contemporary dance vocabularies. The miners come in work boots, their earthy, powerful dance full of actions from their work. The stepsisters and their mother are in pointe shoes, Livia and her mother in particular much more bound, classical and straight-laced. Clara’s father, reflecting his easy-going natural nature is in soft shoes. Clara herself is barefoot. She’s Livia’s complete opposite, Carolin Steitz showing just how untroubled and full of the joys of childhood she is as she dances freely and naturally to the accordion.

The two stepsisters are usually portrayed as pretty ghastly individuals but Livia, clearly the elder, and Sophia are anything but. Sophia (Sara Zinna) is not that far removed from Clara. She’s chirpy, playful and happy. Livia is quite the opposite. Balkiya Zhanburchinova inhibited the character fully. She showed in face and body just how awkward she feels around the newcomer. She tries to play with Clara and you feel she wants to be more like her, but she doesn’t know how to. She’s tense, hardly surprising when something untoward seems to happen at every turn. On top of that is the pressure of dealing with the expectations of her mother. In many ways, she’s fighting herself rather than anyone else. No wonder she struggles.

When she meets Mitch (Pablo Octávio), one of the miners, there are hints of her real self, however as she starts to ease up and thaw, however. Reflectimg her mixed-up feelings, there’s a lovely ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ moment in their duet before she surrenders in a gentle support.

Olgert Collaku as J.R. Prince and Balkiya Zhanburchinova as Livia
in Ruß – Eine Geschichte von Aschenputtel
Photo Yan Revazov

Livia also has to suffer her domineering mother, who has plans for her, plans which it looks like might come to fruition when the son of a local industrialist, J.R. Prince, invites the family to a ball. His name cannot fail to remind those of a certain era of the excesses of J.R. Ewing of the late 1970s television series Dallas. Olgert Collaku’s classical dance is as sharp as his suit. But while the character isn’t afraid to show his wealth and is a magnet for the women, he’s a long way from the manipulative and amoral individual portrayed by Larry Hagman.

The ball scene plays homage to the classics. Under the metal baskets now transformed into chandeliers, and in front of a wall of coal that sparkles in their light, the men in their dark suits and bow ties, and the women in elegant black gowns, waltz gorgeously. Livia, who previously danced with Prince when he delivered the invitation, gets even more confused as he ignores her completely.

But then, Clara, whose ballgown had been unceremoniously ripped down the front by her stepmother just to make sure she couldn’t go, somehow makes it. Quite how she got there, or got in dressed in a coal-dust smeared petticoat, is anyone’s guess, but Prince is enchanted as the audience by her naturalness. Their soft, tender pas de deux, full of dreamy supports and lifts, plays out to the perfect accompaniment of Nina Simone’s solo piano version of the beautiful ‘Mon Cœur S’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns opera Samson and Delilah.

Carolin Steitz as Clara with Olgert Collaku as J.R. Prince
in Ruß – Eine Geschichte von Aschenputtel
Photo Yan Revazov

Happy ever after? Yes, but Briener is not quite done. Emphasising just who the ballet is really about, she leaves the end to Livia and Mitch. Zhanburchinova and Octávio provide a feast for the eyes in a gorgeous pas de deux that mixes tenderness and delicious suspensions that hang on the moment with dramatic overhead lifts as everything pours out. More than anything, though, it tells us Livia has final found freedom, finally found herself. As the lights dim, she laughs at last.

It’s easy to see why Ruß – Eine Geschichte von Aschenputtel picked up Germany’s most prestigious theatre award, Der Faust for Best Choreography, in 2013. It’s an absolute delight. A deeply thought out tale with fully rounded characters, great design, a plot that needs no explaining, gorgeous music, but best of all, some seriously impressive performances from all concerned.