Cinderella, the Australian Ballet

Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. State Theatre, Melbourne, September 17

I CAN say one thing with absolute certainty about the Australian Ballet’s new Cinderella: it will take many viewings to reveal all its riches and intricacies. For that reason it’s likely to be a keeper for the AB and a rarity. A new full-length story ballet that can be revived many times is a prize devoutly sought and so rarely found.

Alexei Ratmansky choreographed Cinderella as his first full-length ballet, for the Mariinsky in 2002. His version for the Australian Ballet is a new one, and a big one in every way. It has a large heart and a tender one, wrapped in a visual landscape of great sophistication. Jerome Kaplan’s designs are beautiful, colourful, dramatically apt and often highly amusing, and they would crush a lesser choreographer. Fortunately the elan of the design is more than matched by Ratmansky’s vision.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

When the production was announced it was stressed from the outset that we wouldn’t be seeing any tutus, nor would there be mice or a pumpkin or tiaras or other bits and bobs that have come to be attached to the story like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. By choosing Surrealism as their version of a fairytale world, Ratmansky and Kaplan put down layer upon layer of complexity and intrigue, embracing the darker side of the fairytale genre and the context in which Prokofiev composed his bittersweet music. The score was written in the early 1940s and premiered at the Bolshoi, to choreography by Rostislav Zakharov, in 1945. It was born in the shadow of war.

On a first hearing the music can seem deceptively unassuming, another reason why return visits to Cinderella are valuable. The AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon led Orchestra Victoria in a truly luscious, moving and dramatically aware account of the score, bringing out the wealth of colours and rhythms that drive the action as well as the wistfulness – very Russian! – that lingers like scent in a room after a person has left it.

There were many ballets on the Cinderella theme before 1945 and many since, but, as Ratmansky says, there isn’t a definitive classical-era version. Frederick Ashton’s 1948 choreography has come to be seen as the yardstick but that view may well be fading. Ashton’s grotesque stepsisters, danced by men (Ashton and Robert Helpmann in the original cast), hijack the piece and his ballroom scene has far too many pallid spots. Prokofiev’s score, on the other hand, has endured as Cinderella enjoys a recent resurgence.

Ratmansky places his Cinderella between the two great wars of the 20th century when, for a moment, some thought there would be no more great wars. The Surrealists’ bracing, unsentimental take on the world is fruitful here. The look is fantastical but astute in its mining of deep-seated human impulses. Not surprisingly for a work so concerned with the passing of time and our perception of it, Cinderella includes a homage to Salvador Dali’s melting clock (from The Persistence of Memory). There’s much more in that vein. Huge eyes survey the scene, topiary turns into metronomes and a full moon morphs into a clock inexorably ticking its way towards midnight. Other Surrealism-inspired props include a nod to the Dali sofa that paid tribute to Mae West’s pillowy lips and hats in the shape of shoes that giddily adorn the heads of Cinderella’s Stepmother and her stepsisters, Skinny and Dumpy.

Kaplan, acknowledging the theatricality of this art movement, frames Cinderella in a false proscenium arch. We are seeing theatre within a theatre and a fantasy within a fantasy. Cinderella, her mother gone, is unloved in her new household. Her father is barely present and she dreams of being swept away and cherished. When the Fairy Godmother arrives, she isn’t some old mystery crone who appears out of nowhere and rewards Cinderella for being kind to her. She is a projection of Cinderella’s longing.

Such an idea makes Cinderella a rather more interesting figure than the usual drudge whisked away from the hearth. Ratmansky gives her a moment of pleasurable day-dreaming in which her stepsisters, Skinny and Dumpy, try their hand at a few chores. They manage poorly, being useless bobbleheads. It seems proper in this reading that the stepmother and her daughters are vain, silly and thoughtless, but mostly not vicious. True, they take early pleasure in destroying Cinderella’s mother’s portrait, but their nouveau-riche gaucheries are very funny and expressed in spiky, tumbling choreography that makes them quite endearing in an empty-headed way.

On opening night Amy Harris (Stepmother), Ingrid Gow (Skinny) and Halaina Hills (Dumpy) rose magnificently to the challenges while dressed exquisitely and eccentrically. (A glance at the AB’s cast list just before opening showed that Juliet Burnett and Reiko Hombo were originally in the first cast. Burnett was a late scratching due to injury and there was only one other pair ready – Gow and Hills. Hombo was then paired with Gow for an early performance; now she dances with Robyn Hendricks’s Skinny. Yes, it’s hilarious to think of Hombo and Hills in a role designated Dumpy, but a good call for them not to be kitted out in fat suits. A voluminous puffball skirt does the trick. There are only two Stepmothers at this point too – Harris and Dana Stephenson – an indication of how exacting these parts are.)

The central pillar of Ratmansky’s dance-making is his love for the classical tradition, made individual and new. It’s a joy, too, to see how he knits in shapes and gestures that illuminate character or illustrate the music’s intention. The formality of mime is gone, softened into dance phrases that speak. References as disparate as traditional European folk dance (raised and bent arms; circling pattern), smart society dance (sexy hip-swivelling) and more formal classical shapes meld seamlessly in the gorgeous corps work in the Act II ball scene, the men and women looking good enough to eat in their slinky, lusciously coloured suits. The women later change into dresses similar to Cinderella’s elegant below-the-knee gown, reminiscent of Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947, but by then it’s too late for any of them to nab the Only Man Who Mattters.

The Prince’s first entrance is spectacular, a rousing flurry of high-flying jetes and quicksilver entrechats. The alpha male is commanding his rightful attention; of such things are character and story built. Best of all, though, is the meltingly beautiful series of solos for Cinderella and her pas de deux with the Prince. The swirls of Cinderella’s upper body are simultaneously delicate and luscious. Often there is a contrast between the sumptuous, yielding torso and strong, searching arms – all so very, very eloquent, entrancing and full of meaning. And what a dreamy moment when the ballroom melts away to reveal a garden in the moonlight. Ratmansky and Kaplan really know how to deliver romance. On opening night Daniel Gaudiello, resplendent in a white suite, and Leanne Stomenjov – I just loved her hair, so chic with its Marcel Wave – surrendered themselves with grace and impeccable style.

Ratmansky wanted to take another look at Cinderella because he felt his Mariinsky version didn’t entirely work. These things are relative of course. Obviously the Mariinsky is quite happy as it revives the production regularly. But Ratmansky wanted to try other things. Apart from pulling back on mime in favour of dance (hurrah!), a significant change is to the section in which the four seasons appear before Cinderella, representing the passage of time. Ratmansky felt there was too little happening for all the music at this point in the scenario and inserted instead a large set of celestial bodies – Sun, Moon, stars, all the planets. His canvas isn’t just the world; it’s the cosmos, overseeing Cinderella’s fate.

It’s a powerful idea, but not entirely successful. The scenario is not a little confusing as one tries to make sense of this whirling, leaping bunch of forces outfitted in Kaplan’s most extravagant costumes. Later, as the Prince goes on his travels, one can see why many choreographers take the easy route and cut substantially here. The “many lands” and “many temptations” of the synopsis are compressed into a couple of scenes that give the perverse impression of being too much and not enough. Graeme Murphy came up against the same knotty issue in his Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. Like Murphy before him, Ratmansky hasn’t resolved this section entirely satisfactorily.

The celestial bodies in Ratmansky's Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

The celestial bodies in Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Perhaps further viewings in Sydney will alter my feelings. The December diary is begging to be filled with more visits and other casts. Speaking of which, there’s the prospect of seeing American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal David Hallberg as a guest artist in Sydney, as the Prince naturally. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Melbourne, until September 28. Sydney, November 29-December 18. Adelaide next year.

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