Just a few weeks after The Royal Ballet gave its final performance of a new production of Frederick Ashton's Cinderella at London's Royal Opera House, another version of the Cinderella story, this one created by Christopher Wheeldon for English National Ballet, opened at the Royal Albert Hall. Although both were danced to the wonderful score composed by Sergei Prokofiev, Wheeldon's staging is the more unsatisfactory, especially during moments when pure classical dancing really counts.
Wheeldon has a less traditional way of telling the story, but he does it in such a way that Cinderella's plight becomes confusing. The antics of the stepsisters, Edwina and Clementine, seem pretty mild, and stepmother Hortensia's biggest crime is that she has a nasty streak when drunk. Cinderella's father is as ineffective as he always has been. Moreover, Wheeldon has replaced the figure of the Fairy Godmother with four male “Fates”, but I found it difficult to understand who they were or why they cared for Cinderella – they are the ones, after all, who took Cinderella's mother away from her when she died during a brief prologue scene.
In addition, Wheeldon gives both Cinderella and Prince Guillaume (did anyone even know the Prince had a name before this?) backstories, although neither of them emerges as a more distinctive character with stronger motivation as a result. At the royal palace, young Guillaume enjoys having fun with his pal, Benjamin, teasing Madame Mansard, a bosomy courtier, and displeasing his parents, King Albert and Queen Charlotte. Cinderella, mourning the death of her mother, looks more peevish and aggrieved than heartbroken, and, significantly, Wheeldon does not suggest sufficiently her innate sadness or, ultimately, her happiness when she meets Guillaume because he does not allow her to stand on her own two feet.
When something emotionally significant in the story emerges through Prokofiev's music, Wheeldon too often allows the Fates to sweep Cinderella up and waft her around the stage rather than permit her to express her inner feelings through dance. There are no imaginative solos for her, as there are in Ashton's ballet (as when Cinderella transforms a sad dance with a broomstick into a joyful waltz with an imaginary partner), nor a sense of wonder when she arrives at the Prince's ball. Cinderella has little agency or individuality, but even when she does dance on her own terms, or with Guillaume, Wheeldon's slinky but unimaginative, prosaic neo-classical choreography cannot surpass, let alone match, the beauty, emotional depth, and inspiration of Ashton's. (For those steeped in British ballet, Ashton's Cinderella casts a long shadow over every other production, and it is sometimes impossible for one to dispel the memory of his dances.)
One of the reasons I was disappointed in the ballet – at least in this in-the-round staging – is that there seemed to be no logic as to why magic might occur. Why, for example, should the Spirits of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter appear and dance for Cinderella? Why do Tree Gnomes and Birds emerge from a magic Tree, and why does Cinderella need to depart the Prince's ball at midnight when she has had no warning that she must do so? In Wheeldon's ballet, this lack of fairy tale logic makes no sense at all. It also raises too many questions without providing enough answers.
Despite all of this, English National Ballet put on a good show for its audience, the ranks swelled with additional dancers for the Cinderella season to fill the huge stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Precious Adams was Cinderella at the matinee on 16 June, dancing a three-act ballerina role for the very first time (an encouraging sign of good things to come from the company's new artistic director, Aaron S Watkin, who takes up his position in August). This beautiful artist gave an elegiac, wistful performance and danced Wheeldon's choreography with elegance, although watching her I couldn't help but wish I was seeing her in Ashton's choreography instead. Now I'd like to see Adams in more principal roles in the years to come.
Likewise, the dashing, charming Daniel McCormick as Guillaume who, despite what his name might suggest, brought ebullient Latin-American flair to his dancing. Although far too young to be playing the part, Isabel Brouwers gave a strong performance as Cinderella's stepmother Hortensia, whilst Emily Suzuki and Jung ah Choi were, respectively, sour and sweet as Edwina and Clementine.
English National Ballet's Cinderella-in-the-round is at London's Royal Albert Hall until 25 June 2023.
Photo Album: Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella in-the-round
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.