Paul Arrowsmith sees two debut casts in The Royal Ballet's new production of Cinderella
|The Royal Ballet
|The Royal Opera House, London
|22 April 2023, matinee and evening
Twenty years on, Wheeldon created his own Cinderella but not for The Royal Ballet, where Wheeldon was part of Kevin O'Hare's choreographic shop window that secured him directorship of the company. Wheeldon's Cinderella was a Dutch National Ballet/ San Francisco Ballet coproduction, still in the rep of both companies and just revived stateside.
For context, in 2011 Wheeldon created Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as The Royal Ballet's first (allegedly) narrative, full-length ballet in 16 years. While Wheeldon was busy reimagining Cinderella in 2012, l asked him whether he felt any pressure about his vision replacing Ashton's 1948 ballet, until then also in the Amsterdam rep:
“With any established production audiences who grew up with it will hold onto it. But for new generations, new tellings of tales will be attractive. Ashton's ballet has many wonderful, wonderful things but it's not, what shall I say, not quite top drawer,” Wheeldon told me, something I was encouraged to hear.
A lacklustre live TV broadcast, at Christmas 1979, was my introduction to Ashton's Cinderella. Newsreader Richard Baker, the epitome of BBC urbanity, was a deferential presenter: Lesley Collier the tentative eponymous debutante. Jennifer Penney, Vergie Derman, Merle Park and Pippa Wylde were deluxe casting as fairies.
Much as I grew to appreciate Ashton's ballets, however pedestrianly performed by The Royal Ballet during the 1980s, I avoided Cinderella in the theatre until 1997. That Sat mat, I was enchanted by a radiant Belinda Hatley as she descended the ballroom staircase, on pointe. Ashton's use of the female corps impressed with his unfailing elegance. The stellar formations at the close of the first act – who quote Scènes de ballet which Ashton created the same year – were classical heaven. The stars in the current revival are gloriously danced with the amplitude I recall but absent from recent revivals.
With Ashton's Cinderella before we get to any dancing, much of the anticipatory action, the folderol of the jeweller and other tradespeople, is leaden: the squabbling step-sisters, a drag. Ashton's deliberately truncated final act feels anticlimactic after the intense drama of the midnight tocking clock that heralds Cinderella's flight from the ball.
Wheeldon – whose arena Cinderella English National Ballet return to the Royal Albert Hall in London again this June – sought “to explore the psychological circumstances of the prince and Cinderella. Each is trapped in their worlds, needing to escape.” While almost every recent and current British choreographer versed in the classical tradition has put a fresh stamp on Cinderella, The Royal Ballet, meanwhile, has stayed faithful to Ashton's conception. Now 75 years old, The Royal claims too to be reinvigorating his Cinderella for contemporary tastes. Hmm?
The Royal's Cinders has, however, oft gone to the ball in new clothes. In 1965 Henry Bardon and David Walker replaced Jean-Denis Malclès' originals, designs that Walker further prettified in 1987. In 2003, Wendy Ellis Somes, a notable Ashton dancer – I fondly recall her retirement performance as La Fille mal gardée in 1990 – produced Cinderella anew. Costumes were by Christine Howarth with sets – notably a dayglo EasyJet orange apotheosis – by Toer van Schayk. Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep as the step-sisters, forced too hard to be funny. “Titter ye not,” as British comedian Frankie Howerd used to say. Believe me, dear reader, we did not.
That production was retired after only eight years, in 2011. Since then, Ashton's ballet has been absent from Covent Garden, as indeed has much of his multifaceted output. Cinderella has now returned, in a new staging again by Ellis Somes, aided by Gary Avis and a plethora of coaches, for 28 performances only (!!). Even among Ashton aficionados, tickets have been slow to shift. Look no further than eyewatering prices, and initial less than wholehearted critical and audience responses.
Tom Pye and Alexandra Byrne have given this Cinderella a new look, the second act ball taking place in a palace garden. That is not so far removed from Malclès' 1948 design. It featured a receding perspective of green architecture, or perhaps topiary, framed by pale, unnatural trees that branched like coral. Here we have giant golden seed heads and foliage framing a chateau, animated by an illusionist and video designer, Chris Fisher and Finn Ross, coupled with twinkly lighting by David Finn.
I caught up with the production a month into its run seeing two debutante Cinders, Akane Takada and Laura Morera on the same day.
Takada was a fragile Cinderella in the kitchen, expressive in her mime with the broom she pretends is her prince, her wrists and hands beautifully expressive. The audience was rapt in silence as Takada descended the stairs to the ball, her footwork in this act like filigree. She judged perfectly Cinderella's circular circuit of the stage, the accelerando and ritardando in speed confidently delivered.
Morera also excelled in this sequence but too often I thought in this act her performance was on one note, too poised, without a sense of wonderment. What have we missed by Morera not being given the role earlier in her career? She made more of the kitchen scene, feisty with confidence of her self-worth.
At the matinee, Itziar Mendizabal was an imperious Fairy Godmother – uncannily reminiscent of Beryl Grey. At the evening performance, Gina Storm-Jensen was a mellower presence. The transformation of the beggar woman into the Fairy Godmother is one of the production's miscalculations, happening in a blackout, a cop out. Calf-length costumes worn the Fairy Godmother and fairies in this scene are another misstep, hiding the dancers' legs and Ashton's quirky, mercurial movements.
Of the fairies, Mica Bradbury was a now languorous, now wild Summer with beautifully pliant arms and hands. She was sensuality itself even if her costume did suggest Frida Kahlo had joined the proceedings. Ashley Dean was a pert Spring, Meaghan Grace Hinkis a wild Autumn. Fairy Winter (underperformed at both performances) emerges as the salon d'hiver, the rear wall of the set, cracked open – a clever idea.
Other staging decisions, such as flying out the roof structure during the fairies' divertissement, or (noisily) removing the fireplace and bookcase, projected flower imagery depicting the passage of the seasons, and a shower of falling leaves during Fairy Spring's solo (why?) took focus away from the dancers. Bad timing in the management of the transformation of pumpkin into carriage diluted its impact. The midnight clock is invisible from large parts of the auditorium.
What of Ashton's short, final act – shorter than the interval that precedes it? For the first time, I thought it a beautiful diminuendo of a finale. After their short duet that recalls the rose adagio from The Sleeping Beauty, the prince (variously Nicol Edmonds and Matthew Ball, both virile in what little they had to do) and Cinderella, framed by a formation of stars that is pure Busby Berkeley (Ashton knew how to entertain), ascend Pye's elegant, curved staircase to infinity. A perfect dying fall.
Before we get to what a programme note calls “the elephants in the ballroom,” namely the step-sisters, let us address another – namely the jester. Now, for me, a jester is one of those irrepressibly grating characters that any ballet can manage well without. Daichi Ikarashi's insouciant performance almost convinced me otherwise. Next stop for him – please – would be the lead role in Ashton's Rhapsody, so that ballet may regain its nonchalant wit, long missing.
So, to the sisters. Ellis Somes writes in the programme of her desire to make the sisters “funny again. Not quite so nasty and pushy.” Well, the nastiness is totally there in Sergei Prokofiev's acerbic score. The sisters too, were conceived in the spirit of English panto, recognisably alive in the 1940s. That tradition is long dead. Panto is now brasher, coarser. So too have been attempts to revivify Ashton's characters.
Some performances in this revival had women cast as the step-sisters, as was sometimes the practice over the years but I saw only two male pairings. Luca Acri and James Hay were the timid sister. Neither made an impression. Much was due to the flummery of Byrne's costumes that killed the dancers' ability to project a performance. These sisters were cheapskate runway challengers from RuPaul's Drag Race. Perhaps, that was the intention? The programme suggests we consider the sisters as fashion victims.
At least Hay had some rapport with his bossy sister, in the sassy and flirtatious shape of Calvin Richardson. Thomas Whitehead, worked hard (very hard!) with Acri, extracting some humour from their oompah trot with the oranges and the shoe-fitting scene. Whitehead most established a genuine character, seemingly inspired by Dame Hilda Bracket, half of the 1970s British drag act. But that too is a cultural reference well past its date.
And yet a 1957 TV adaptation, featuring Ashton but – particularly – Kenneth MacMillan as the sisters, reveals what wit and finesse can achieve with these roles. Real characters – but The Royal Ballet no longer has the depth of experience or comprehension among its senior character artists to do that. Casting young dancers does not reinvigorate a stale genre.
Wheeldon, as Artistic Associate, has had a huge impact on The Royal Ballet, in theatrical terms and his catholic casting choices – if not in choreographic distinctiveness. Over the past 20 years, Wheeldon's one-act works have proved mid-Atlantic, straddling his too-obvious influences, British and American, without Wheeldon yet establishing his own choreographic voice.
But in three-act narrative form, yes even with Alice (more a show than a ballet), The Winter's Tale (best when Wheeldon is furthest from William Shakespeare, MacMillan and Ashton), but particularly with Like Water for Chocolate Wheeldon has pushed the boundaries, particularly in terms of design and storytelling aesthetics.
I don't suggest Wheeldon creates Cinderella anew for The Royal Ballet – his ambitions and imagination are more wide ranging. Wheeldon's Cinderella in San Francisco only came about when his anticipated relook at Benjamin Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas did not materialise. Now a Wheeldon Pagodas is a ballet for somebody to snaffle up. Stuttgart would be a natural home.
But this Cinderella is as queasy as the opening, hallucinatory light show that blinds the audience. Its design flair suggests a current West End show coupled to a performing language from a different age. The amalgam does not cohere. It has clearly been a labour of love for those involved, and a huge expense shared with The National Ballet of Canada – too much for it to be replaced.
Much as it is a delight to see The Royal Ballet's founder choreographer – Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton – centre stage at the Royal Opera House, there are many more of his works that demand attention, compared to the few that do repeatedly make it to the Royal Opera House stage. The expense channelled on this revival could be much more interestingly invested. But let us welcome what Sarasota Ballet bring to London next year – and indeed what The Royal Ballet itself has to chosen to revive – when audiences will gain more of a flavour of Ashton's range.
Paul Arrowsmith has been watching dance for 45 years after Peter Wright's Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet was his baptism in dance in the UK. He wrote for Dancing Times between 2010-22, reporting from China, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, along the way interviewing Alessandra Ferri, Akram Khan and Miyako Yoshida among many. He has a particular interest in design for dance and has profiled the work of Natalia Goncharova, Jürgen Rose, John Macfarlane and Anthony McDonald. Paul collaborated with Sir Peter Wright on his memoires Wrights & Wrongs and in 2016 was programme consultant for the BBC documentary, The Ballet Master: Sir Peter Wright at 90.