United Kingdom English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round: Dancers of English National Ballet, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Daniel Parkinson (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.6.2023. (JPr)
Choreography – Christopher Wheeldon
Music – Sergei Prokofiev
Libretto – Craig Lucas
Set and Costume design – Julian Crouch
Lighting design – Natasha Katz
Puppetry design – Basil Twist
Projection design – Daniel Brodie
Assistant to the Choreographer – Jacquelin Barrett
Precious Adams – Cinderella
Daniel McCormick – Prince Guillaume
Isabelle Brouwers – Stepmother Hortensia
Emily Suzuki – Stepsister Edwina
Jung ah Choi – Stepsister Clementine
Noam Durand – Benjamin
Rentaro Nakaaki, Ken Saruhashi, Junor Souza, Erik Woolhouse – Fates
English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round was a wonderful reintroduction to seeing full-length ballet ‘live’ again in person and not on a screen (cinema or laptop). The company were on great form and from the principals to the corps de ballet – either twirling about or simply watching the action by sitting around the performing space – everyone appeared totally committed to giving the audience the best experience possible. This extended to entering or exiting up the aisles when I couldn’t see anyone ‘switch off: and mentioning that, it was a thrill to have the veteran Michael Coleman pass down the stairs near me. He relished his walk-on and -about role as Alfred, the character Benjamin’s father, and gets one laugh-out-loud moment with Madame Mansard (Laura Hussey), the prince’s dance teacher, but otherwise he lords it over the formal proceedings in the palace. One of the first ballets I ever saw was The Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden when Coleman danced in the Bluebird pas de deux, that was (help!) fifty years ago.
I first saw Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella choreography at the London Coliseum in 2015 when performed by Dutch National Ballet, again in a 2019 recording of an earlier ENB in-the-round performance and more recently when it was put on in Munich. Obviously watching online was clearly only half the thrill it was watching it close to in the huge performing space available at the centre of the barn-like Royal Albert Hall.
In the Dutch National Ballet programme for Wheeldon’s 2015 Cinderella, Graham Watts wrote how ‘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”.’ In the original Grimm version the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to try and fit into the glass slipper, but nobody need have any fears that this Cinderella is as grim as that. However, near the end there is a desperate attempt by bibulous Stepmother Hortensia (Isabelle Brouwers) to force the shoe – not glass of course because this is ballet – on the foot of Stepsister Edwina (Emily Suzuki) by wielding a large mallet and hammering at it with great enthusiasm.
I have used that example before to illustrate how this scaled up production bends over backwards – sometimes literally in Wheeldon’s gymnastic choreography – to present itself as the antithesis of Frederick Ashton’s deeply traditional and romantic staging (recently reviewed here) based on Charles Perrault’s eponymous seventeenth-century fairy tale. Ashton’s and Rudolf Nureyev’s Hollywood Cinderella for Paris Opera Ballet (review click here) perhaps make more sense of the familiar story but may not be quite so much of a crowd-pleaser. One of the best things about both of those is that they have ditched the ‘ugly sisters’ we are familiar with from traditional pantomime, i.e., played – or rather danced – by men. Wheeldon has said ‘I wanted the sisters to be on a level with Cinderella, the same age, and perhaps uglier of spirit than physically ugly. One of them [Clementine], actually is rather sweet and just being bullied into being mean …’.
What you will find hard to forget if you see it at the Royal Albert Hall is Julian Crouch’s stunning designs (look out for the 24 couples costumed in blue waltzing around in Act II) and Daniel Brodie’s astonishing ever-changing projections that can seamlessly change the background to what you are watching in an instant and there is also a huge tree – that must be seen to be believed – which ‘grows’ (perhaps with the help of puppeteer Basil Twist) before your eyes and goes resplendently through the seasons as Act I ends.
Perhaps less memorable is the rather incoherent storytelling, for instance, Cinderella and Prince Guillaume (disguised as a beggar) meet and dance in the first act but he apparently fails to recognise her, admittedly masked, later at the ball. Wheeldon’s choreography is at its best in marshalling such a large number of dancers otherwise the steps are a little prosaic and repetitive. I know there is only so much a human body can do but the dance vocabulary here looks more limited than usual. Regardless there are other unforgettable images such as at the start when we are shown how Cinderella’s mother (Minju Kang) dies when she is still young (Ella Zieglmeier) and gets poignantly transported heavenwards as an angelic figure. Act I also ends a little like this when the grown-up Cinderella is raised into the air with silk billowing behind her rather like the pumpkin carriage. This is completed by two sets of wheels and six ‘horses’ that seem to appear out of nowhere as you try and stifle a ‘wow!’ Cinderella in-the-round really is a frequently jaw-dropping Disneyfied spectacle which rarely draws breath.
There is no clock, nor is there a fairy godmother who is substituted by four shiny-faced Fates (Rentaro Nakaaki, Ken Saruhashi, Junor Souza and Erik Woolhouse) who are given quite a bit to do, forever interacting with Cinderella to encourage her on her way towards the much-anticipated happy ending. Many dancers must run miles during any performance and even the leading ones get involved in moving around the few solid pieces of scenery there are. Wheeldon never misses an opportunity for a cheap laugh whether it is about Stepsister Edwina’s halitosis or loose morals, and amongst candidates for the shoe there are smelly or ticklish feet, and one even has crossed legs! Then there are all the exotic characters we see at the end of Act I and who will reappear in Act III to try the shoe on. There is much fun to be had by watching Hortensia enjoying all the free drink a little too much at the ball and giving her despairing husband (a stoic James Streeter) the slip to chase after the champagne-proffering waiters. (Hortensia’s hangover in Act III means she vomits into what Cinderella has prepared for breakfast, though what this has this to do with the actual story I am not sure?)
So apart from the final, deeply romantic pas de deux for Prince Guillaume and Cinderella the ballet still lacks the ‘genuine emotion and heart’ I have remarked on missing before. Initially, Wheeldon seems more interested in the prince’s relationship with his friend Benjamin (Noam Durand), as well as Benjamin’s own burgeoning love for bespectacled Stepsister Clementine (Jung ah Choi), the more sympathetic and goofier of the two. After all the backstory in the first act it seems a long time until 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 to be tied up as they have that climactic – and more expressive – one. Finally, they marry but then emerge from a crowd of well-wishers for this Cinderella to have a strangely low-key ending.
Wheeldon’s Cinderella does not look particularly downtrodden and often wears a nice blue dress and Precious Adams in her role debut was what attracted me to this performance. Konstantin Stanislavski ‘the father of modern acting’ is responsible for the saying ‘There are no small roles, only small actors.’ As a dancer Adams has been mightily impressive in myriad ‘small roles’ and thoroughly deserved finally being centre stage virtually throughout an entire full-length ballet. Wheeldon explains his Cinderella as ‘a bit feistier, she is a little bit defiant, has pride and honours her mother’s loss in a dignified way. She is not someone who just gets shoved around.’ Adams’s Cinderella is exactly that and as a dancer she is always a joy to watch with her flawless technique and exquisite arms.
In fact, it was role debuts for all the leading sextet of dancers: Daniel McCormick bounded around the Royal Albert Hall’s wide-open spaces with evident joie de vivre especially when over his bromance with Benjamin. McCormick has a huge leap, lands softly and partnered Adams very reliably. As a charismatic Benjamin, Noam Durand looks an exciting dancer to look out for in future years and he danced crisply and ebulliently. Isabelle Brouwers’s stepmother and Emily Suzuki and Jung ah Choi as the stepsisters showed impeccable comic timing and provided great entertainment.
Prokofiev’s score has some beautiful melodies that remind the listener of his earlier more significant music for Romeo and Juliet and would allow for some more lyrical dancing than we sometimes get from Wheeldon. The English National Ballet Philharmonic were out of sight amongst the choir seats to the rear of the Royal Albert Hall for Act I but deserved being seen in the far distance – especially as the orchestra at the ball – later in the ballet. Their amplified playing sounded fresh and energetic and was a credit to their conductor Daniel Parkinson who conducted a delightful account of Prokofiev’s music and provided excellent support to such a splendid company of dancers.
For more about English National Ballet click here.