Jonathan Gray sees The Royal Ballet's new production of Ashton's Cinderella
|The Royal Ballet
|Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
|29 March 2023
Not seen at the Royal Opera House for over a decade, The Royal Ballet celebrated the 75th anniversary of the first performance of Frederick Ashton's Cinderella with a new production that it will share with National Ballet of Canada. With lavish sets designed by Tom Pye and imaginative costumes created by Alexandra Byrne, the ballet has been given a fresh look that will bring it into the 21st century. It was first seen at a fundraising gala at Covent Garden on 27th March with Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov in the leading roles.
However, although the original choreography has been carefully preserved (the staging has been supervised, perhaps too carefully, by Wendy Ellis Somes), many of the structural problems that have always beset Ashton's Cinderella remain, including the insurmountable difficulty of what best to do with Cinderella's dratted Step-Sisters – they remain as unfunny and embarrassing as ever. Ashton created ravishing dances for Cinderella and the Prince, and in Act I for the Fairy Godmother, the Season Fairies, and the corps de ballet of Stars, but there is also much padding in the work, especially during the ball scene, and far too many tiresome antics from the Sisters. I also dislike the way the Season Fairies and the Stars attend the ball alongside the Prince's Courtiers – this always seems to me to diminish the enchantment of Cinderella's arrival at the palace. If only the producers had been braver, bitten the bullet, and given the ballet the pruning it really needs. I saw Cinderella on 29th March, when the Sisters were, as usual, danced by men in drag, but in alternate casts these roles will be danced by women – I wonder if this will make a difference? I would love to find out.
Nature, and its magical elements, encroach into Cinderella's world in the sets of Tom Pye. The first act is located within what looks like the dilapidated library and winter garden of an old French château, with potted plants withered and dead against a background of huge, cracked windows. Cinderella warms herself by the fireplace whilst her Step-Sisters argue over a shawl, and later, Cinderella's Father searches for a volume amongst the bookshelves. With the arrival of the Fairy Godmother and the Season Fairies, the room slowly crumbles away and turns into a magical garden, with oversized, gilded flowers and blooms framing the space. The set is awash with Finn Ross' video projections of blooming flora and twinkling lights, and, with the help of Chris Fisher's illusions, the Fairy Godmother floats a pumpkin into the air, which then magically explodes and is transformed into Cinderella's coach.
Rather than a palace interior for the second act, Pye takes the ball outside into the gardens of a château on the Loire, perhaps Chambord. The Courtiers dance amongst the formal parterres and the giant, magical blooms, and Cinderella's coach draws up in front of the castle. As midnight approaches, a huge clockface appears in the sky, the hands ticking away as a reminder of the approaching hour. Later, in the final scene, Pye gives Cinderella and the Prince a stairway to heaven, the steps curling forever upwards and away, presumably leading them to Never-Never Land.
The sets and video designs are attractive and appealing, with a pleasing fairy tale quality, but I was less sure about Byrne's costumes. I admired the bright colours of the Season Fairies and their attendants but was less certain about the costumes for the Courtiers, which looked a little drab, as well as the hard outlines to Byrne's tutus. The Step-Sisters, in pink and purple, were brash.
Musically, Serge Prokofiev's gorgeous score sounded a little ponderous and slow under the baton of Koen Kessels, although the conductor brought out well the sinister undercurrents that run through much of the music, especially during the ball scene. The playing of the music, as well as much of the dancing, seemed dutiful rather than inspired.
Ellis Somes has set Ashton's choreography exactly, and yet it tended to look lifeless. Yes, every step was clearly enunciated with bright dancing, but it needed more: more sharpness, more speed, more fluidity, more bending, more lavishness, more daring. The Fairy soloists all performed immaculately, but best was Yuhui Choe, who conveyed the lusciousness of the choreography for the Summer variation – you felt she might faint away with the heat. Mayara Magri was a fabulous Fairy Godmother, dancing with glowing warmth and richness. Luca Acri and Thomas Whitehead worked hard as the Step-Sisters, as did the talented Joonhyuk Jun as the Jester, but I found them all utterly unconvincing.
Which just leaves me to write of the debuts of Yasmine Naghdi as Cinderella and Matthew Ball as the Prince. A handsome pair, the couple are ideally matched and dance together with a natural warmth and confidence. Every step was polished and performed with aplomb, and they brought a wonderful sense of rapture to the great pas de deux in the ball scene. Naturally charismatic, Ball's jumps were light, bounding and exciting to watch, whilst Naghdi's marvellous ballroom solo was springy and playfully musical. They were as fine a leading couple as any I have previously seen in this ballet, and they brought to it a true sense of romantic fulfilment. I admired, also, the way Naghdi had earlier emphasised the underlying pathos of Cinderella's character, and the quicksilver way she darted about the stage with her feather duster and then her broom.
Ashton's Cinderella will be in repertoire at Covent Garden with further cast changes in the leading roles. It will be very interesting to see how the company grows in the ballet before the run of performances end on 3rd May.
Photo Gallery – The Royal Ballet's Cinderella
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.