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Cinderella In-the-Round

by on 7 June 2019

Gasp Inducing Dream World

Cinderella In-the-Round

by Christopher Wheeldon, music by Sergei Prokofiev

English National Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall until 16th June, then on tour until 26th October

Review by Suzanne Frost

Christopher Wheeldon has won his reputation as a master storyteller with Alice in Wonderland and his Shakespeare adaptation A Winter’s Tale for the Royal Ballet, but proved himself equally at home in the world of commercial entertainment, winning a Tony Award for An American in Paris on Broadway. His Cinderella, originally a standard proscenium arch production created for San Francisco Ballet, has now been transformed and upscaled for the vast Royal Albert Hall, to be played in the round, marrying classical ballet and large-scale entertainment. Entering the spectacular auditorium, the excitement is palpable and, unlike at the Coliseum, there are a good few evening gowns to be spotted. Looking around I felt that my ticket in hand was much like my very own invitation to the ball of the year and everyone from London’s dance scene showed up.

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Wheeldon uses the prologue to show us a young Cinderella with her happy family before her mother succumbs fast to an incurable illness and so, within minutes, we are emotionally involved. Unlike ever in fairy tale history, we also get to see the young prince growing up, dashing around the palace with his friend Benjamin, two very unprincely balls of little-boy energy, clowning around and breaking a priceless Royal Wedgwood vase. I always love how Wheeldon uses children not as cutesy gimmicks for grandma but as proper characters within the story.

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The recent Disney live-action adaptation by Kenneth Branagh made a huge point of Cinderella being kind rather than pretty, emphasizing that true beauty comes from within. Wheeldon has embraced this celebration of kindness and this suits perfectly for Alina Cojocaru, tiny and unassuming, there is a warmth and humility in her every gesture. Consistently, the two “ugly” stepsisters are actually far from ugly, Edwina (Emma Hawes) statuesque and coquettish, the bespectacled Clementine (Katja Khaniukova) more goofy. Tamara Rojo as Cinderella’s stepmother is glamorous and saccharine sweet – as long as you don’t push her. For Cinderella’s father to fall so severely under the spell of his new family, it makes sense that the ladies all seem rather charming, their uglier side, their vanity and cruelty only revealed when it is too late.

As the prince’s best friend Benjamin, Jeffrey Cirio is a joy to watch, executing breakneck choreography with flawless precision and a real sense of fun. Helping his buddy out, who has been pushed by the king to hand-deliver all the ball invites, the two friends swap roles, Benjamin introducing himself as the prince (immediately to be fawned over by the stepsisters), and the prince himself disguised as a poor beggar. This little trick allows us not only to witness Cinderella’s innate kindness in action, as she alone welcomes the urchin into the house, but also gives our two heroes time to actually get to know each other. Rather than trying to convince us it’s love at first sight at the ball, these two make a much more believable couple, as we see them having fun together and a very obvious, real connection.

Just like in An American in Paris, Wheeldon uses projection instead of scenery to transport us, at times to spectacular effect, when the young prince gets a history lesson from his father the king, walking all over a large-scale map of the world or studying a gallery of grim-looking ancestors’ portraits. Rather than a “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” fairy godmother, Wheeldon goes with the original much more gothic Brothers Grimm version, where Cinderella’s dead mother watches over her, growing a huge magical tree on her grave from her tears.

The four spirits who accompany Cinderella’s every step I found less successful and occasionally distracting, but they have the benefit of, whenever fate calls, making Cinderella literally fly. There is a Cirque du Soleil aesthetic to the dance of the seasons, partly due to the arena feel of the Albert Hall, and partly from the saturated colours of the spectacular costumes, elaborate headdresses and outlandish makeup. While for Summer, Wheeldon doesn’t quite capture the lazy heat of Prokofiev’s music, he creates a real whirlwind of canon choreography for Autumn. His shtick with canon can occasionally look messy in group scenes, but for in-the-round ballet it is clearly the way to go, giving every seat in the house something to look at. There is so much space here, and so many soloists relishing the leeway with travelling jumps and joy of movement. There are magical creatures galore, dancing chestnuts and a corps de ballet of feathered herons (costume and set design by Julian Crouch) that are beyond fantastic and barely on stage for five minutes. Cinderella’s dress is so beautiful it gave me tingles all over and that carriage… I wouldn’t want to spoil it but a child behind me audibly gasped and you lean back with that satisfaction of knowing a new recruit has been converted to the magic of theatre.

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The ball then ups the scale to complete phantasmagoria and left me feeling like I landed headfirst in a Disney technicolour masterpiece. Prokofiev’s sumptuous dark-velvety grande valse was literally made to be danced by 24 lavishly dressed couples. It is the sign of a fantastic supporting cast that I was touched by goofy Clementine timidly introducing her crush Benjamin to her dad and Tamara Rojo relished her comedic role getting royally drunk and giggly.

Cinderella’s entrance has to be some of the most magical music ever written and it feels like the whole world stands still. Her variation is one of my favourite solos and Alina Cojocaru acts it beautifully, starting so modest and plain and culminating in sheer abandonment as she succumbs to the joy of falling in love. The dashing Isaac Hernandez shows us a prince visibly growing up and becoming a man in front of our eyes. Although Wheeldon hardly invents a step that isn’t classical ballet, his use of dancers’ bodies is always surprising, with transitions and lift never seen before or deemed possible. While fireworks go off in the background, our heroes are oblivious to all the pomp, absorbed in each other, looking like the kind of couple who will likely never run out of things to talk about or steps to dance.

For the next morning, Prokofiev gives us that glorious drunk music that sounds like the coarse voice and achy feet you only get after a really good party. And his happy end is underscored with music so melancholic, it just knows that great happiness can only exist in the world because of great pain and heartache, as we see our young couple dance under the shadow of the tree growing on her mother’s grave. My heart is full with fairy-tale fuzzy feelings.

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I recently happened to see Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! again and was reminded of the song Spectacular Spectacular: “So exciting, the audience will stomp and cheer! So delighting, it will run for 50 years!” – Thinking of what this lavish extravaganza production must have cost ENB, I certainly hope so. And may generations of kids get the chance to gasp and dance all the way home to the tube station because that’s what Cinderella is all about: believing your dreams can come true. What ENB has here is the ultimate fairy tale ballet.

Suzanne Frost
June 2019

Photography by Ian Garvin

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