In Munich, Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella continues to confuse as much as it delights

GermanyGermany Prokofiev, Cinderella: Dancers of Bayerisches Staatsballett, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Gavin Sutherland (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, 13.11.2022. (JPr)

Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella (opening of Act III)

Choreography – Christopher Wheeldon
Libretto – Craig Lucas
Set design – Julian Crouch
Lighting – Natasha Katz
Video – Daniel Brodie

Cinderella – Madison Young
Prince Guillaume – Julian MacKay
Stepmother Hortensia – Maria Chiara Bono
Stepsister Edwina – Elvina Ibraimova
Stepsister Clementine – Bianca Teixeira
Benjamin – Shale Wagman
Cinderella’s Father – Javier Amo
Cinderella’s Mother – Rhiannon Fairless
King Albert – Krzysztof Zawadzki
Queen Charlotte – Séverine Ferrolier
Four Fates – Nikita Kirbitov, Vladislav Kozlov, Sergio Navarro, Robin Strona
Solos – Ariel Merkuri (Summer), António Casalinho (Autumn), Kristina Lind (Winter), Carollina Bastos (Spring)
Valet Alfred – Jeremy Rucker
Dance Mistress Madame Mansard – Polina Bualova

Christopher Wheeldon 2012 staging of Cinderella was first danced by the Bayerisches Staatsballett on 19 November 2021. I first saw it when Dutch National Ballet visited London in 2015 and a couple of years ago I saw a recording of English National Ballet’s 2019 in-the-round version which they performed at the Royal Albert Hall. Over the three times I have seen it my general impressions remains much the same, so I apologise in advance for repeating myself in what I have to say about Wheeldon’s Cinderella.

Graham Watts explained in the 2015 programme that ‘Although the initial impetus for the new ballet came from San Francisco, Dutch National Ballet was soon drafted in as co-producer … The libretto (developed by Craig Lucas) stems from Wheeldon’s love of the Brothers Grimm. “I always loved the darker, German interpretation with its focus on the death of Cinderella’s mother and the stepmother’s subsequent corruption of the father”.’ It should be remembered how in the original Brothers Grimm version the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to try and fit into the glass slipper. Thankfully, nothing in this Cinderella is as grim as that, despite an attempt in the final act to make the shoe – not glass of course because this is ballet – fit on Stepsister Edwina’s foot by using a mallet!

That one example tells you all you need to know about a large-scale production that bends over backwards – almost literally considering Wheeldon’s gymnastic choreography – to be different in every way from Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1948 famous, deeply traditional and romantic choreography for Charles Perrault’s eponymous seventeenth-century fairy-tale. Both this one and Rudolf Nureyev’s 2011 Hollywood Cinderella for Paris Opera Ballet make more sense of the familiar story but perhaps may not be quite so much of a crowd-pleaser.

In Wheeldon’s Cinderella it is Julian Crouch’s sets and costumes, as well some of the slapstick comedy, you might remember long after you have forgotten the oddly incoherent story and the rather over-familiar movement. I am surprised nothing has been done to sort out the first act which is a little all over the place and must have many wondering how what we see has anything to do with the Cinderella story they think they know. It begins with Daniel Brodie’s video showing us some white clouds and darting birds before we see Cinderella’s mother (Rhiannon Fairless) succumbing to tuberculosis and there is a rainy graveside scene (with a hint of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling). There we encounter for the first time the Four Fates – with gold-painted faces and blue and black costumes – who throughout this Cinderella will guide our heroine to her happy ending. They owe much to figures we see in Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet and begin by raising Cinderella’s mother aloft like an angel. It seems that Cinderella’s tears cause a sapling to sprout from the grave which will grow bigger and bigger and dominate some later scenes.

Wheeldon has already taken us briefly to the royal palace, where Prince Guillaume is playing about with the butler’s son, Benjamin, and they will remain lifelong friends. Guillaume seems initially more interested in his friend than in his need for a suitable fiancée and Benjamin mocks those he must choose from. Invitations need to be handed out for a ball and Guillaume and Benjamin swop clothes. We now get a glimpse of Cinderella serving food to her stepmother (Hortensia) and stepsisters (Edwina and Clementine) and begin to get an idea of how badly she is treated by them, Hortensia tries to trip Cinderella at one point and she is saved from falling by the Fates showing they are there to do more than just carry her aloft. Guillaume turns up as a tramp who Cinderella takes pity on with Benjamin there as the prince to hand out the invites. Hortensia will throw Cinderella’s one into the fire. So Wheeldon has Guillaume – albeit in disguise – meet and dance with Cinderella in the first act and this makes what happens later somewhat nonsensical.

Cinderella is carried, seemingly asleep, to the tree where the Fates call on the spirits of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter who – along with some fantastical creatures (‘Big Head’, ‘Nut Head’, and ‘Bird Lady’) – help prepare Cinderella for the ball. Wheeldon’s choreography here is undoubtedly attractive – if not particularly inventive – but does goes on too long. Cinderella gets taken in by the tree’s trunk before remerging in gold dress, with gold mask and long flowing train and being lifted on high on a ‘horse-drawn carriage’ which, in reality, is just four large wheels and four figures with horse’s heads.

After all this padding out of the first act the ballet moves fairly quickly to its conclusion as Cinderella and this version of Prince Charming confirm their love in a significant duet in Act II and for all the loose ends of the meandering narrative thread to be tied up when they have a climactic – and more expressive – concluding one at the end of Act III. There obviously has been no pumpkin and there will be no clock. Under an array of chandeliers in the palace there is much floor-covering waltzing for the ladies and gentlemen of the court. There is fun to be had watching Hortensia enjoying her drink a little too much and giving her husband (Javier Amo) the slip to chase after the champagne-proffering waiters. (Later in the second act she is shown with an almighty hangover and vomits into her breakfast bowl, though what this has this to do with the actual story I cannot be sure.) We also see the burgeoning love Benjamin has for the goofier of the two stepsisters, Clementine. The pas de deux for Guillaume and Cinderella is pleasant enough but there is a confusing end to the act with Hortensia ripping off Cinderella’s mask which has her running off leaving a gold ballet shoe behind.

Act III starts with a gaggle of different characters sitting on chairs while the round-the-world music gallops along. Wheeldon has never yet missed an opportunity for a cheap laugh whether it is about Stepsister Edwina’s halitosis or loose morals, and here there is someone with smelly feet, another who is ticklish, and a third one missing the necessary leg! When there is no one who the shoe fits, the chairs dance up on wires to frame the kitchen. The Fates are still there, assisting Cinderella with the housework as she recalls dancing at the ball. She discovers the second shoe and conceals it. Hortensia throws the one Guillaume brings with him into the fire, but the Fates intervene again to carry Cinderella along to recover the one she hid. United at last Guillaume and Cinderella go to the magic tree for their wedding when against the backdrop of a starry blue sky Wheeldon has them emerge from a crowd of well-wishers, including the king and queen, for a strangely low-key ending to his Cinderella.

Madison Young as Cinderella and Julian MacKay as Prince Guillaume

The choreography – which I have somewhat overlooked in all my extravagance – involves a lot of twirling for a well-drilled and committed corps de ballet, particularly as the ladies and gentlemen of the court. Whilst the principals often get many lifts, as well as moves requiring split legs, sweeping arms and deep spinal curves. There was too much repetition in the movement and shaping and I longed occasionally for something a little less showy and rather more nuanced. If not that, perhaps someone could have just stood still every so often. Prokofiev’s score has some beautiful melodies that will strongly remind listeners of his earlier – and more significant – music for Romeo and Juliet. It would allow for some more lyrical dancing than Wheeldon sometimes allows. Though what an advocate it gets from the wonderful Bayerisches Staatsorchester who do full justice – as heard through loudspeakers – to the musical accompaniment under Gavin Sutherland, from English National Ballet, who is a peerless conductor of this repertoire.

The two American dancers in the leading roles were a delight to watch: Madison Young (Cinderella) danced with an easy on the eye, pliable and faultless technique and displayed with dramatic conviction her character’s desire to escape the drudgery of her current life and to find romance. Julian McKay isn’t given so much to work with by Wheeldon but is as lithe and athletic as any lovelorn ballet prince must be and there seemed a genuine chemistry between him and Young’s Cinderella. Shale Wagman danced Benjamin with confidence and fervour, whilst Maria Chiara Bono (Stepmother Hortensia), Elvina Ibraimova (Stepsister Edwina), Bianca Teixeira (Stepsister Clementine), good dancers though they undoubtedly were of Wheeldon’s steps were even better in his physical comedy.

Jim Pritchard

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