Put me down as “not enchanted”. This Cinderella felt thoroughly bland, lacking much to warm the heart even in places where it should do. I didn’t care too much about Cinderella’ s “journey”. I didn’t think the Prince was too likeable. Having him jape around with his buddy was a strange interjection. The magic struggled to emerge: paganism is not as enchanting as a magic wand waving to make everything aright. Brave choices by Wheeldon at each turn, but I wasn’t carried away to believe in the fairytale. Too, I didn’t quite feel the romance. Whether due to casting, performance or story or all three, this wasn’t quite the dance spectacle I had hoped for.
The piece begins with video projection of clouds and a few larks flying through the sky. Through the scrim we see young Cinderella en famille and al fresco, but her mother quickly dies of respiratory illness – the downfall of most women in art – and I nearly wrote “high art”, but I am convinced that Wheeldon has aimed for something like Pop Ballet (some small prejudice intended) where as ever, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the virtue in some art precisely lies in its altitude – its knowing itself to be “high”. One can approach it and enjoy it, and often without the exertion one might first fear, because it often makes one fly away into make-believe (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty) or into rarefied joy (La Fille Mal Gardée).
By contrast, this Cinderella is harder to take wing to. To horribly mix many metaphors, if some ballets sweep one away on a carpet of breathless pleasure, so quickly that time (as Proust and Einstein knew) contracts, and one positively walks home on the air of joy, this was a bit like a untaxing stroll through some pleasant enough foothills, with some moments having the slight feeling of “how much further?” and “are we nearly there yet?” – interspersed with the unengaged: “did I leave the gas on at home?” “why is there a huge conker-headed being onstage?” “why is the Prince acting like a 13 year old with his best buddy?” and so on and so on. I wonder if this was due to a lack of aspiration, or a desire to make it “accessible” for everyone. But, what do I know?
I do know that the eight-ish year old kid next to me was utterly bored and fidgeted horribly throughout – poor lamb – and understandably so, and that the lady next to me let out a few heavy “my soul is being destroyed” sighs and that she didn’t come back after second interval, and nor did a fair few others – some in fact leaving at first interval. Of course, I stayed, as often (as with life?) one finds redemption near the end.
Thus no fairytale castles quite. No godmother – instead four blokes in blue, the Fates. No Perrault. Instead, late 19th Century-ish costuming and sets both by Julian Crouch, with 21st century choreography. Costumes seemed more like uniforms: I am ambivalent about having court attendees and ballgoers all dressed the same. What aims for the backdrop to a dream, or aims to be a subtle background all the better to show off the leads, can instead became a dull palate – uniformity where vivacity should glister.*
That said, Wheeldon’s writing for groups shows a good eye. At one moment in the ball scene I was reminded of those 1950s films where women dive into a pool in synchronised time as the camera moves past, and in addition, there are some good “pose pictures”. Cinderella’s drive away in a pagan carriage (designed by Basil Twist) – accomplished by similar means as Alain’s carriage in “Fille” (dancers carried and rotated wheels and carried Cinders) – was one such good pose picture, but to my eye rather than than indicating joy, her billowing ballgown rather resembled a drogue chute one often sees deploying on landing jetfighters or landspeed-record attempting vehicles. (Sorry Chris and Crouch.) Also, Cinderella’s moment of transformation was a bit odd – she basically gets sucked into a tree. Like I say, no fairytale wands here.
I was reminded of Northern Ballet’s Cinderella – which I saw last year – which wears its heart firmly on its sleeve. There’s a real carriage (of a kind) and a sprinkle of fairydust. There’s a reason kids want to be fairies or wizards or witches rather than druids. The former promises magic, the latter is constrained to nature. The natural is lignic and fey and eerie, rather than supernaturally twinkly. I wanted twinkly. Some fairytales, like this one, need fairies. And I didn’t get one nor any twinkle. But… I am getting bogged down.
I quickly began to realise that this was a ballet low on dance and high on mime and story. This may be a move to preserve the wellbeing of a small cast dancing consecutive nights, and so too might be Wheeldon wanting more story. I’m all for both, but here it seemed at expense of my enjoyment. I guess watching Cinderella’s step mother (Sasha Mukhamedov) vomit into her breakfast bowl is worth a chuckle – the preceding “drunken dance” was truly excellent, but some gags didn’t raise too much of a smile, sadly.
Happily some dancing was well done. Our Cinderella, Maia Makhateli showed beautiful poise and carriage in her frequent lifts by the Fates (Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair, Peter Leung, Edo Wijnen, Anatole Babenko). Their number lent her easy grace and illusion of transport – Fate well portioned indeed. Credit too must go to Maia Makhateli herself for this delightful ballon, however, I would baulk if my stepdaughter suddenly seemed to float about and then land on the breakfast table to ladle me out my gruel. She didn’t win me over in her act two solo. Though I thought he feet elegant physically, I am unsure that the writing suited her.
Speaking of gruel(-ing?) was there ever a less oppressed Cinderella than here? the family didn’t quite seem to have her in straightened circumstances. Her step mother seemed fairly nice. Her step sisters (Erica Horwood, Suzanna Kaic) too. Dad (Sébastian Gaultier) has remarried, which is some consolation I guess, and I couldn’t see many tatters or rags or indeed much soot upon her person. Indeed, she kept the same quite fetching purple dress on for most of the show. How can I long for her to get with her man and to improve her lot in life if she already seems, by and large, to be doing ok?
Makhateli showed herself a capable actress, but against her Prince (Artur Shesterikov) her efforts seemed thrown into triviality. I couldn’t sense much chemistry even though she was working hard for it. Mr Shesterikov had a bit of a fixed grin throughout, which (binoculars in hand for closeups) didn’t quite bring sparks. Her adoring looks weren’t quite shared. Couple this with what felt like some unedifying pas de deux and the result was that I wasn’t sold on them as fairytale couple.
These weren’t the only false notes. In one or two moments, the Prince and his buddy sit on the floor for a move or two, and there I felt that, in a show of otherwise (neo)classical ballet vocabulary, that choreographers should emulate the children they seek to entertain: choreographers, The Floor Is Lava: when you’re dancing you’re safe. The second your butt touches it, you die. Having your principals sit on their behinds on stage is the death of grace. It must never happen. When did you ever see Petipa, Ivanov, Balanchine etc have two guys scoot around onstage on their behinds?* So much “no”.
The final scene was the nicest: gone was the pagan aspect, present the human (to which one can finally warm to), Wheeldon offering here a more homely epithalamium (or, I guess more accurately, matrimonial) and tellingly, all without dance. Cinderella and Prince Guillaume in beautiful white outfits (and yay! a tiara for Cinders!) a smattering of confetti, popping corks and the crowd onstage toasting the couple, all drawing closer in human bonding.If only there had been more here for us to do the same with.
And yet, applause, cheers, whistles from a sold-out auditorium. If people are entertained, who am I to begrudge?
* the Swans in their lake of tears are an exception. We all know a few facts about swans, not least that they sing when they die, and that they’re are mostly uniformly coloured in life.
* but if anyone knows, let me know.