Northern Ballet’s version of the world’s favourite fairytale is set in Imperial Russia, a land of ice and acrobats and furry hats. It’s wintry and charming and perfect for Christmas. But it’s not just about the visuals. This is a beautifully crafted ballet, putting a twist on classical dance with folk and contemporary influences and presenting a sophisticated narrative with fully developed characters. Philip Feeney’s score is sparkling but distinctive, with chimes and percussion a strong presence amongst more traditionally ballet instruments. The story begins with a young, happy Cinderella celebrating her birthday with her father, stepfamily, Prince Mikhail and a crowd of other revellers. Amidst the sunlit celebrations – which include a shy but playful first duet for Cinderella and the young Prince – Cinderella’s father presents her with a shawl. This soon gets taken by her stepsisters and thrown over to the other side of the river, where a hunt is going on. Finding his daughter distraught at the loss of her present and afraid to retrieve it, Cinderella’s father goes over the bridge – and is suddenly shot.
Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella features an incompetent father unable to overrule his wife and free his own daughter from her slavery, but the death of the character has much more of an impact. We see his wife’s grief turn to anger, as her body contorts and her steps en pointe become sharp and stilted. Cinderella not only witnesses the traumatic loss of her father, but bears the burden of partial responsibility – when she tries to gain comfort by grasping her stepmother’s hand, she is thrown off with a hatred that lays the blame at her door. Grief is a powerful emotion and Cinderella’s stepmother runs on it throughout the ballet, wearing all black dresses and never ceasing in her cruel treatment of her stepdaughter. Hannah Bateman’s characterisation is excellent and some severe hair styling and make-up age her convincingly.
The winter market scene that follows Cinderella’s transition to adulthood (a quick switch disguised by a well-placed table) is colourful, lively and well-orchestrated. Having escaped the kitchen, Cinderella wanders between acrobats, stilt-walkers, traders, a bear-tamer and a magician – this story’s version of the Fairy Godmother. His magic tricks don’t look particularly impressive close up, but it’s evident that he isn’t a character to be taken too seriously – one of his tricks backfires and in the following scene on the ice rink, he can’t stay upright without Cinderella’s help. In contrast to the bustling market, the frozen lake scene is calmer and more graceful. David Nixon’s choreography cleverly evokes ice skating as rows of dancers skid across the stage en pointe, while couples glide through petit fouettés à terre. These new additions to the story still serve a purpose within the narrative, as Cinderella meets her magical saviour and catches glimpses of the now grown-up Prince Mikhail, looking round the market and skating with his friends.
Both of these scenes are followed by solos for Cinderella, back in the kitchen and forced to return to her chores. Lucia Solari dances these with a beautiful extension that echoes her character’s longing and despair, reaching out for someone to end her suffering. Of course, that someone arrives in the shape of the Magician, who repairs her ripped-up ball invitation, makes short work of the washing up, turns her rags to riches and conjures up a giant sled and three huskies to pull it. (Not real ones, sadly, but the sight of dancers running round on all fours in husky costumes did make me cry with laughter, so I wasn’t too disappointed.) Duncan Hayler’s set design is ingenious, if not completely to my taste – everything is oversized and has a slightly claustrophobic inward lean (apt for the kitchen, but nowhere else). But the changes are slick and clever, particularly the gradual emergence of the sled from the kitchen range – complete with illuminated letters on the side saying ‘Cinders.’
The ball scene should be the highlight of any production of Cinderella, and Northern Ballet certainly deliver. The costumes feature gorgeously coloured folk prints and headdresses over full skirts (far too cold in this Imperial Russia for classical tutus!) and bright red military coats. The dancing is fabulous and in full swing before Cinderella even arrives – there are male and female divertissements, an energetic solo for the Prince and a classical swirling waltz for all. Cinderella’s stepsisters vie for Mikhail’s attention, making comical doe eyes at him even when they’re dancing with someone else. (This production makes interesting and realistic use of the stepsisters, who – childhood teasing aside – don’t share their mother’s hatred for Cinderella. Returning from the winter market, they show their stepsister what they’ve seen via giddy petit allegro and even show pleasure when she gets a ball invitation too, but like children, they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. Throwing vegetables round the kitchen in a game, they unintentionally get Cinderella into trouble, escaping punishment themselves. Their cosseting is reflected in the renewed motif of them crouching either side of their mother and holding onto her waist.)
But back to the ball. Once she has made her entrance, Cinderella is invited to dance and proceeds to perform a solo that is every bit as sparkly as her silver gown and the harp that accompanies her. Her subsequent duet with the Prince perfectly captures that new love, butterfly feeling with sweeping rond de jambes and promenade turns. Meanwhile, the story sticks to its realism as Cinderella’s stepfamily recognise her immediately – rather than being thrown off the scent by a nice dress – and attempt to reveal her. Her escape at midnight lacks the intense drama of productions based on Prokofiev’s score, such as the Royal Ballet’s, but takes her back in time through the ballet’s various locations until she is confronted with her childhood self and in rags once more.
Prince Mikhail’s visit to the house, crystal-studded slipper in hand, is the concluding scene in most versions of Cinderella, but not this one. Cinderella’s stepsisters don’t even get to try on the shoe. Summoned by her Stepmother, Cinderella is exposed as the shoe’s owner, a revelation that is greeted at first with derision and then – once the Prince has looked her properly in the face – with horror. He storms out of the house, but is soon reunited with Cinderella on the frozen lake and begs her forgiveness. At first she pulls away, but then casts off the shawl her father gave her – and all its associations with past guilt and sadness – to rush into the arms of her Prince. They dance a third and final duet full of exuberant lifts, as snow falls around them, and the ballet ends. Rather abruptly, it has to be said, but happily ever after.
Sorry for the essay there folks. Well done if you made it to the end!