Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella: English National Ballet

From the moment English National Ballet announced their new production of Cinderella – choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and staged in the round at the Royal Albert Hall – I was dying to see it. I adore the dark, luscious music written by Prokofiev, which presents a challenging backdrop for the ultimate ‘happy ever after’ story. Part of what makes both Matthew Bourne and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s versions so brilliant is their creation of fairytale worlds with a sinister edge, which perfectly compliment his score. I was curious to see how Wheeldon’s retelling would measure up.

His Cinderella inhabits a curiously mixed world of gloomy Gothic mansions, sumptuous palaces and wild woodland creatures. There is no Fairy Godmother figure – instead, the heroine is watched over by four Fates (brilliantly danced by Junor Souza, James Forbat, James Streeter and Francisco Bosch). Melting in and out of the shadows, faces masked, their presence has a touch of menace but it is their guidance – often physically, in the shape of impressive group lifts – that helps Cinderella to find her prince.

Maria Kochetkova is a fresh, innocent heroine and the chemistry with her Prince Guillaume (Jeffrey Cirio) is palpable. Nowhere is this more evident than in their ball scene duet, a heartstoppingly romantic pas de deux bursting with flowing partner work, sweeping lifts and emotional exuberance. There are further twists to the story: the two lovers meet prior to this, when Guillaume enters Cinderella’s house disguised as a servant, and it’s not the striking of midnight that forces the heroine to leave the palace, but discovery by her stepmother.

The Royal Albert Hall is an interesting platform for ballet. The sight of its massive arena floor full of dancers is an unforgettable one, and being in the round is a huge challenge for choreography, set design and scene changes. (I felt sorry for the dancers who had to use the stairs through the stalls to make their entrances and exits, especially when oblivious audience members got out of their seats and into their way!)

This production manages all of these challenges with style and spectacle: scenery featuring moving portraits, flying birds and changing leaves is projected onto the arena floor and a vast backdrop covering the organ and choir stalls. Physical pieces of set – towering columns, kitchen furniture, Cinderella’s mother’s gravestone – glide across the floor to set the scenes.

Fittingly, it’s the big turning points in the story that really wow – the transformation scene recreates an enchanted forest, with fairies inspired by the seasons (though given different names here) turning the stage into a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured tutus. Several strange woodland creatures appear – some have giant heads, while others are humanoid horse chestnuts or anthropomorphised birds. The carriage is a simple but ingenious puppetry creation using wheels of woven branches, horse heads and a huge piece of fabric held up by Cinderella for the roof.

The ball is without question the visual highlight of the whole production. Dancers in rich blue costumes waltz below a giant, glittering chandelier, and the fantastic orchestra – until now concealed by the scenery – are revealed on a balcony above and thus incorporated into the scene. The action moves smoothly between group dances, duets and small scenes between the characters.

Comedy is a key feature of this production, a reminder of the story’s other identity as a pantomime. Begona Cao is scene-stealing as the vicious, alcoholic Stepmother, diving at passing palace footmen to get her hands on more champagne and staggering down the hall steps, post ball, covering her eyes to simulate a raging hangover. Her two daughters, Edwina and Clementine (Fernanda Oliveira and Shiori Kase) frequently get laughs for their squabbling, exaggerated steps and cheesy grins, though Clementine’s redemptive love story with the prince’s sidekick is very sweet.

Wheeldon’s family-friendly take on the fairytale is guaranteed to endure in the company repertoire thanks to its dazzling staging, pantomime humour and touching romance. I’m looking forward to seeing how the proscenium arch version looks when it visits Manchester later this year.

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